|Few artists produce works as eerily ambiguous as those by American painter Mark Ryden. His surreal images of cherubic children, mythical animals and other curiosities, deftly executed through traditional painting techniques, appear at once beautiful and cruel and blur the traditional categories of high and low art. We spoke to the 50-year-old artist about the inspiration behind his so-called ‘pop surrealism.’
Wertical: You have said making paintings is a natural, primal instinct. It sounds like you have never had another profession in mind. At what point did you know you wanted to become a painter?
Mark Ryden: If I had pursued a career other than art, it would have been something in the science or mathematics field, but my main interest from a very young age was painting. I studied illustration in college and originally pursued a commercial art career rather than a fine art career because when I was younger I didn’t see anything happening in the fine art world that sparked my imagination or interest. After college, I began work in commercial illustration. After about ten years of commercial work I had my first solo fine art exhibition. After that I quickly transitioned into fine art and stopped doing commercial art completely.
WE: Looking back at the early days, in what respect did your approach to art differ?
MR: My technical approach has been somewhat consistent since the beginning of my fine art career. I use a very traditional oil painting technique incorporating layers of subtle glazes. It is a time-consuming, tedious technique! As the years have gone by, I think perhaps I have become more and more obsessed with detail and subtlety and strive for the unachievable goal of perfection. Michelangelo said, “Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.”
WE: Your works are cheerful yet melancholic, childish yet mature, beautiful yet gritty. How would you describe your paintings to somebody who has never seen them?
MR: I regularly run into the need to describe my art to someone who has not seen it. People will hear I am an artist and ask what my art is like. I do not know why, but I find this to be one of the most difficult questions to answer. I have so much trouble coming up with a suitable answer to the question. I usually don’t try and simply give people my web address to see for themselves!
WE: As the viewer’s perception is varied, paintings are interpretable in several different ways. If you weren’t a painter but a writer, and you had the chance to issue a statement everybody would pay attention to, what would you say?
MR: I often wish I had the ability with words that I have with creating images. But I simply don’t. I suppose that is why I am a painter, not a writer. I could never put into words the things I put into images. I have so much trouble trying to explain my paintings. The meaning lies within the image itself, not the words that might attempt to explain it. Explanations always fall short, and at best, only manage to take away what I feel is the most important quality in a painting the mystery.
WE: Hinting at cultural connotations requires knowledge and a sense of touch. You are an observer of our age. What do you currently find interesting?
MR: It is fascinating to observe the slow but steady convergence of science and spirituality I see happening at this point in time. Science of the last several hundred years grew to a point where it seemed like all of life’s questions would be answered in simplistic, reductive, scientific terms. It appeared as though everything would be eventually explained by science. As things advanced in the last century, mystery has again permeated our world and the universe. The uncertainty principle made things less concrete, with particles popping in and out of existence. We have learned that 85% of the universe is composed of dark matter, something we have little knowledge of. We now see that science alone cannot explain life, and the past 2000 years of monotheism certainly did not have the answers. I think we are now arriving at a more pagan view of the world, and we are beginning to see the many levels of divine mystery all around us.
WE: What beliefs or faiths do you follow?
MR: I am strongly repelled by monotheism. I think it is the belief in a singular God who exists “above” humans, who are “above” animals and the natural world that has caused 2000 years of problems on this planet. I believe we should live in equality and harmony with the natural world around us. I believe there are many gods. Problems in perception arise when people personify the gods and think about them too literally. It is better to think of the gods as archetypes or energies, or even simply “qualities.” I think of the universe as a dance of these gods.
WE: In what respect do these beliefs influence your art?
MR: I think my spiritual beliefs are completely interwoven into my art whether I consciously attempt to achieve that or not. The two are inseparable. Some of my paintings are imbued with more spiritual content than others, but all artists who paint authentically from their heart will display their world outlook in their work to one degree or another.
WE: You recently collaborated with Tyler the Creator, who generates massive hype along with music collective, Odd Future. Are you interested in such hype? Is that something you like to observe? What fascinates you about him?
MR: It had been a long time since I did an album cover. I thought it might be a nice departure from my usual routine. I appreciate Tyler’s range of creativity. He not only produces his music, he directs his music videos and does most of his own art. I am putting together my own record album as part of my next exhibition. It is a compilation of different musicians doing gay 1890s music. Tyler did a song for me, and it’s great!
WE: What do you like to surround yourself with to be inspired?
MR: I live inside my own cabinet of curiosities. My studio and house are overflowing with stuff. I regularly go to flea markets and collect a variety of things that inspire me. I collect and hoard lots of things and lots of junk. I collect everything from old children’s books, interesting product packages, to toys, photographs, medical models and skeletons, shells and minerals, and religious statues. I also have an extensive collection of books on art that are on shelves that go up to the high ceiling behind my drawing table.
WE: What impact do memories of your childhood and children’s book have on you and your works?
MR: I have a large collection of vintage children’s books. These books are filled with images of the archetypes that children first see that connect them to the collective consciousness. These are very powerful images. I often go back to this fertile arena of imagery for inspiration.
WE: Are your works political?
MR: I don’t think my work is political. I certainly have no overt political objectives in mind when making my art. If asked, I do have strong liberal political beliefs so I suppose my strong convictions creep into my art inadvertently here and there, but the idea of art being a political soapbox does not interest me.
WE: But Abraham Lincoln is a reoccurring figure in your works. What does he express for you?
MR: There is something indefinable that is endlessly fascinating about Abraham Lincoln. If you are born and raised in the United States, you are exposed to the image of Lincoln from the time you are a very young child. There is something very special about that image. When you compare images of Lincoln and George Washington, the images of Washington don’t evoke any of the feelings that Lincoln elicits, and I think that’s because Lincoln was photographed. He was one of the first famous people ever to be photographed, and there’s something strange and amazing about his face. In those photographs his face seems to carry the weight of that time in United States history. Lincoln came to be seen as something much more than just the president of the United States. It’s almost as if he was beatified and made a saint, to the degree that such a thing could happen in America. Perhaps he was a martyr for our sin of slavery.
WE: Speaking of freedom, do you seek it by backing away from reality and taking refuge in your paintings and as such, in another world that isn’t necessarily better, but more honest, instead? What exactly do you flee from?
MR: If I am fleeing away from something it is too difficult for me to define what it is. Maybe I resist defining it. I am more interested in thinking about what I am attracted to rather than what I may be fleeing from.
WE: How does a normal day in your life look like?
MR: Over the years, my late night painting time has transitioned into early morning. I guess it is a natural component of age. There is a similar mood with early morning that is similar to late night. Unfortunately, much too often I go right to the computer and lose myself in the mind-sucking world of email and rob myself of the special early morning peace.
WE: More than a decade ago, you said you were eating meat. But your strong involvement with meat raises the question of whether you have since become vegetarian...
MR: I am not a vegetarian; I do eat meat, but not often. I don’t think it is morally wrong to eat meat. Instead I try to remain aware of what I am eating and where it came from. When I eat meat I eat only organic, free range meat in the hopes that the animal I am eating had a happy life. If we consume meat as food, we should give a thought to the animal that the meat comes from. It is funny how before we eat, many of us pray to and thank God, instead of the animal that gave its life for our meal. There seems to be a complete disconnect between meat as food and the living, breathing creature it comes from. If we could all become more conscious of our interconnection to the natural world around us, we would all be much happier.