|Mark Ryden's paintings are not for the faint of heart. His paintings confront the viewer, using laughter as a cause for anxiety and offering contemplations on mortality, as fuzzy bunnies are ripped in half with blood rushing forth. Ryden's carnivalesque aesthetic is developed from subtle amalgams of many sources; from psychedelia to the Vienna School of Neon Park and Ernst Fuchs to Ingres, David and other French classicists. Along with these fine art sources, Ryden also draws his inspiration from anything that will evoke mystery; the treasure of old toys, books, photos, anatomical models, stuffed animals, skeletons and religious ephemera found in flea markets.
The imagery Ryden uses triggers a warped deja-vu where childlike kitsch turns into a nightmarish yet humorous parallel universe comparable to the raucous scenes of Pieter Bruegel. Furthermore, the perception of an idealized fairy tale dreamscape is methodically inverted as Ryden serves to remind us of the violence behind the surface of life. "It is," explains the artist, "[the] things I find to be 'strange' I also often find to be elevating."Center stage in much of Ryden's work are party hats and cuddly plush pets, while political emblems and hints of alchemy lurk in the periphery. There are gold leafed Buddhas protecting the decency of Snow White (Snow White, 1997) and miniature Abraham Lincolns about to be culled by a butcher bunny (The Butcher Bunny, 2000).
According to the Russian author and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, there are three forms of carnivalesque artthe ritualized spectacle, the comic composition and various genres of billingsgate (foul language)all three of which are interwoven in Ryden's work. Take, for example, Ecstasy of Cecelia, 1998, in which an Alice-like figure in a Vermeer-esque room is depicted through the eyes of Saraceni's 1610 composition St. Cecelia With an Angel (the ritualized spectacle). Ryden hints at both the (darkly) comic and the (self) abusive by depicting a little girl staring glassily back at the viewer despite being under attack from the giant springing jack-in-the-box. Her blank expression is potentially due to her having imbibed the SSS blood purifier (a 70-90 percent alcohol tonic given to girls with "Spring and Summer Sickness" at the turn of the century), as inscribed on the side of the piano. P.P.