|Large-eyed waifs and larger-eyed snow yaks. Abraham Lincoln’s severed head resting on a child’s bed. Jimi Hendrix standing Christ-like on a giant steak. These strange and surreal images populate Mark Ryden’s paintings. Critics consider the 48-year-old painter a member of the so-called Lowbrow movement, an underground, populist, and pop-culture-infused art scene with its origins in 1970s Southern California.
Meat is a recurring theme for Ryden, who made his solo debut in 1998 with an exhibition called “The Meat Show.” Impeccably rendered T-bone steaks, linked sausages, bloody hams, and ground beef show up in fanciful and eerie places in his paintings: a child clutches a handful of balloons that aren’t balloons at all but hunks of red meat, a girl poses in a formal dress made of meat, a butcher with bunny ears slices ham with a handsaw. “If an image is made stronger by including a nice slab of meat, then I will use it,” says Ryden.
Ryden is beloved by, and taken with, Hollywood. He has painted portraits of Leonardo DiCaprio, Christina Ricci, and Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett. Robert De Niro is a collector. Ryden’s paintings show up on album covers and dust jackets, including Michael Jackson’s Dangerous and several Stephen King novels.
Ryden lives in the Los Angeles area with his two children and his wife, the artist Marion Peck.
Which cut of meat do you find the most aesthetically pleasing?
There are countless patterns, colors, and different types and cuts of meat. It makes it hard to tire of meat as a subject. However, I find I often want to use a piece of meat that is the most archetypical. The most “generic” piece of meat that might represent meat in a general sense. For me this piece of “ideal” meat lies somewhere between a standing rib roast and a porterhouse.
When you paint meat, do you go to the store and buy a chunk of meat and set up a still life, or do you paint from photographs? If the former, where do you get your meat and how is shopping for meat to paint different from shopping for meat to eat?
I have quite an array of “meat” sources. I love old butchers’ charts and brochures, and I have a pretty good collection of meat-related paper ephemera. These are a great resource for reference material. I also take many of my own photographs that I use as reference. Many years ago, I shot a couple rolls of film at Smithfield’s Meat Market in London. That place has a thick atmosphere that feels like something from the turn of the century. Blood-splattered workmen would be pushing mountains of meat around in old wooden carts. I have used those photos many times as reference.
What was the first painting you did that featured meat?
The first painting I ever did that contained meat was called The Meat Magi, which I painted in 1997. It depicts an idyllic 1950s neighborhood with excited children running up to what would seem to be a brightly painted ice cream truck. Instead of selling ice cream, the commodity is actually meat.
Describe the act of painting meat the color palette, the textures, the way you use paint.
It is actually quite a joy to paint meat. It is fun to slather on vermilions, ochres, and whites, and pull the colors into each other, creating passages that are wonderfully abstract, yet are still representative of meat. Applying translucent bloodlike glazes that settle into the crevices can echo the real thing.
You’ve described yourself as a “passionate meat-eater” and compared your hunger for flesh to that of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Has the experience of creating your meat paintings changed the way you eat meat? How often do you eat meat, and how do you like it?
I do enjoy eating meat, although for health reasons I do not eat meat very often. Only perhaps once or twice a month. I do not feel that it is ethically wrong to eat animals. On the other hand, I do feel that it is horrendous how the animals we use for meat are treated. Most live a tortured existence from the moment they are born until they die a horrible death. This brutality is completely unnecessary. When I do eat meat, I eat organic, free-range meat in the hopes that the animal that becomes my meal had a decent life and was treated well.
In your painting The Birth of Venus a nun-like nurse offers Abe Lincoln a raw steak. In The Grinder (#95) Abe Lincoln grinds beef for a pale young girl. Why Abe?
The meaning lies not in words that would attempt to answer that question, but in the image itself. Certain images that juxtapose different visual elements or subjects will evoke specific feelings or thoughts. Asking “why” misses the point.
Many of your paintings contain young women and meat. In these images, is meat about sex? Death? What?
It is neither about sex nor death. The young women are about soul or anima. The meat is about life. Meat is the physical substance that makes us alive and through which we exist in this reality.
In one of your newer paintings, a young woman wears a meat dress. Why is that painting called Incarnation?
Incarnation is the act of manifesting in bodily form. It literally means in carne or “in the meat.” All of us are wearing our bodies, which are like a garment of meat.
What did you think of Lady Gaga’s meat dress?
I got quite a flurry of e-mails that day after the awards show. It had been only a few months prior that I had exhibited my “meat dress” painting in New York. Indeed, after several other incidences (Gaga’s use of blood, tears etc.), it does seem less and less likely to be mere coincidence. On the other hand, I am certainly not the only one to use the theme of meat in their art, and I am not the first to use meat as clothing (Jana Sterbak, Zhang Huan, etc.). I don’t think Lady Gaga was making any kind of political statement in wearing the meat dress. I think her motivation was simply to get attention. And that she certainly did!