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Snow yaks and yetis -- an ice man cometh
February 20, 2009
By MANAMI OKAZAKI
Special to The Japan Times
Fans of Pop Surrealism were no doubt tickled pink to hear of their messiah, painter Mark Ryden, making an appearance in Tokyo for the opening of "The Snow Yak Show" at the Tomio Koyama Gallery. The solo exhibition features eight new works from the masterful painter, each exquisitely detailed in his characteristic style that is reminiscent of illustrations in classic children's books such as Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen."

Large-eyed snow yaks, woolly mammoths and a strange female snow creature that came to Ryden "in a vivid dream" take up most of the canvases, with simple backgrounds executed in icy tones. The paintings are minimalist and captivating, as well as being geeky in their meticulousness. For Ryden, who finishes paintings with brush strokes executed under a magnifying glass, doing one can take up to a year.

Ryden's following is cultish. He has groupies who call themselves Rydenites, and, at a Los Angeles exhibition at the prestigious Michael Kohn gallery, thousands of people showed up for a six-hour reception. Demand for his work has led to astronomical price tags and a fan list splattered with the names of A-listers, including Ringo Starr, Bridget Fonda and Robert De Niro, and famous kooks such as Michael Jackson.

"I try not to think about that," Ryden tells The Japan Times at his opening at Tomio Koyama. "It can get in the way of your creativity. If you fill your head with how people are reacting, it's hard to separate that from the work. But for the most part it's been great."

The popularity of Ryden's paintings have led the Michael Kohn gallery — where his piece "Tree of Life" sold for $800,000 — to take him on as one of their artists. An exhibition at Seattle's Frye Art Museum in 2004, "Wondertoonel," was the best attended since the museum opened in 1952.

Ryden also has a following in Japan, which only increased with the translation of his book "Mysterious Circus" into Japanese as "Fushigi Circus" in 2006.

"His works appeal not only to art collectors but also music fans or creative directors, such as Nagi Noda, whose art direction had a great impact among teenagers," says Tomoko Omori of Tomio Koyama at the opening. "While Ryden's subjects are based upon childlike toys and storybook figures, within them resides a parallel truth of dark mystery."

Ryden is still squarely at the forefront of the Lowbrow genre, a term that loosely refers to the Surrealist art movement that draws from accessible pop-culture sources such as comics and rock 'n' roll, and "low culture" such as tattooing and TV. However, Ryden is among a group of artists who are able to straddle both sides of fence when it comes to "fine art" versus Lowbrow. Japan's Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, both of whom Ryden cites as influences, also manage to do this. How his work is categorized is unimportant to him though.

"I've never really thought about it, I'm just doing the same thing that I've always done," says Ryden. "It's not really feedback that motivates me, it's my own drive. It's my own inspirational ideas. The feedback is fortunately positive, but it can't become the motivating factor, or that can mess you up. Then you start creating your art for audience, and that can be dangerous. You second guess what people are going to like."

Ryden usually works along a specific theme, such as the white, wintry settings in this exhibition. Past themes include: blood and bees, meat, trees and bunnies. His works often depict as their central subjects frightening characters such as decapitated bunnies or an infant carrying a balloon made of meat, all painted in old-world painterly techniques. The themes, says Ryden, "take on a life of their own, once I go in that direction."

The work for which he is most renowned portrays a disturbing world of bug-eyed gods that have assumed the form of pop-culture icons, such as in "The Birth of Venus" (1998), in which Colonel Sanders is feeding an umbilical cord down Abraham Lincoln's ear. "My work is a product of my surroundings and of my time," explains the painter. "'From when I was born in 1963, (Los Angeles pop culture is) what I was exposed to and what formed my archetypes of what the world is to me."

These icons are often juxtaposed with strange symbols from religions, but even simpler paintings, with characters such as "The Yeti" in the "Snow Yak" series, are creepy and confusing, forcing the viewer to seek meaning.

"I like for people to try and figure it out," Ryden says. " That is a good sign that someone is inspired enough that someone does a deep analysis of something, that they are engaged long enough to try and figure out a deep explanation to what they are seeing. "The Yeti character doesn't 'symbolize' anything to me, but that does not mean that it is meaningless."

While audiences are familiar with Ryden as a purveyor of unsettling imagery and obtuse symbolism, his work at Tomio Koyama is more subtle, tinged with a more innocent childlike vision.

"My role as an artist is simply to act as a reminder to people to not become jaded," says Ryden with a chuckle. "A lot of people who are not artists can look at artists, and feel through them what it is to be creative and see things through an unjaded eye."

"The Snow Yak Show" is at Tomio Koyama Gallery till Feb. 28; open 12 noon-7 p.m. For more information, call (03) 3642-4090 or visit www.tomiokoyamagallery.com