By Amanda Erlanson
For Mark Ryden, nostalgia is more than a panacea, a gentle salve that soothes the raw edges of modern existence — it is the very lifeblood of art. When he sits down to paint, he is surrounded by a jumble of wonderful old toys, books and peculiar artifacts that whisper to him in their myriad voices, sparking distant memories and forging strange connections.
Of course, the “highbrow” art world disdains nostalgia and its physical manifestation, “kitsch” as the pathetic refuge of the uncultured masses, upholding appreciation of the abstract and conceptual as the distinction of the refined mind. Yet the universal archetypes which connect us all are not nourished within the haughty academies of artistic formalism. They grow within each of us, fed by the dark underground river of our thoughts, feelings and dreams. When we come across a stuffed bunny, tin robot, or storybook that sets off a haunting resonance within us, something deep in our psyche recognizes a conduit between the waking world and the fertile landscape of the unconscious.
At Art Basel Miami this month, Mark will see the release of his first retrospective monograph, a collection of over twenty years of paintings that explore those uncharted spiritual pathways. The massive 366-page volume from Taschen is entitled Pinxit—playfully referencing both the preponderance of pink in his work and the Latin word meaning “he painted this,” which artists like Ingres and Rubens once appended after their signatures. Like many of Taschen’s titles, the book will initially be released as a 15" x 19.5" boxed collector’s edition of one thousand signed and numbered copies, to be followed by a trade edition at some later date. Though Mark has issued most of his books through his own Porterhouse Publishing arm, this project with Taschen offered him the chance to really stretch his wings. “There is a physical scale to this book that is truly impressive,” Mark said. “There are four-panel foldouts that will be a full five feet wide. I have always had a great passion for books, and it is very exciting to have a book of this enormity made of my own art.”
Soon afterward, the City of Angels will be graced with Mark’s first hometown show in five years. This coming spring, he will be unveiling a new body of work at Michael Kohn Gallery that will be informed by the same “olden days” kitsch that inspired last year’s The Gay 90’s: Old Tyme Art Show at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York. As Mark explains, “For every one painting I make, I will make perhaps fifty rough sketches. For every rough sketch I make, I have a hundred ideas that don’t get that far. I can only create a finished painting of a very small fraction of my ideas. There were just too many Gay ’90s paintings I didn’t get to finish for the last exhibition—I had to keep going.”
Kitsch is a perennial focus of contemporary art, but artists like John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, and Paul McCarthy approach their subject from the supercilious viewpoint of camp, laughing at its “bad taste” while simultaneously reveling in it. Whereas an artist like Jeff Koons takes an ironic distance from kitsch, transforming a valueless object like a gaudy porcelain figure of Michael Jackson into something valuable—a work of art—by mockingly exaggerating its cheapness, Mark cherishes his ostensibly vulgar subjects, elevating them to the status of sacred talismans through the time-honored craftsmanship passed down to him from master painters like Ingres, David, and Bouguereau.
But even a lover of nostalgic artifacts has his limits. Recently, Mark has been found pushing himself embracing an arena of kitsch so egregious that it makes him feel strangely uncomfortable, and challenges his own aesthetic boundaries—the era quaintly known as The Gay ’90s. “I would look at modernist attitudes that detest the taboo subject matter of nostalgia, imagination, and beauty, and think about how incredibly closed-minded this attitude is. But I came to realize I have my own thresholds. I gravitated towards the Gay ’90s because it is the extreme of ‘distasteful kitsch.’ I wanted to play with it. Why not try to pull the lowest of the low into the highest of the high? It is interesting how those exclusionary modernist attitudes are as ‘olde tyme’ now, as the 1890s were when modernist thinking was born.”
Today, the 1890s have passed from living memory, and all that remains is a saccharine fantasy. Ironically, the period never actually existed as we now fancy it—a frothy confection concocted in hindsight almost two decades later. Our collective imagination of that time is shaped by the kitsch left behind by a thirty-year swell of nostalgia that arose in the early twentieth century. Gay ’90s mania came to a head with the rise of a new consumer culture in the Roaring ’20s, an era bracketed by two depressions and two world wars. Conservatives reacted to the turbulent times by churning out waves of wistfulness about the golden age of their youth. For them, the 1890s were the equivalent of the 1950s for us today—an era of prosperity and idyllic small-town life, the last moments of a simpler time before the advent of automobiles and recorded music. Looking backward, they recalled the “good old days” of straw hats and striped suits, marching bands and barbershop quartets, Gibson Girls and bicycles built for two. Yet, in the real 1890s, most Americans either worked on farms or in urban factories, and this small-town utopia existed only in summer enclaves where well-heeled folks from the city went to escape the soot and heat. This extraordinary nostalgia for the Gay ’90s was one of our longest episodes of cultural self-hypnosis, and lasted well into the 1940s.
By the 1960s, when Mark was a boy, the lingering artifacts generated by this fad had worn trite and old-fashioned. An ideal day would be spent drawing or painting alone at his desk, dreaming of metaphysical numbers and Egyptian mythology. While his creativity was being nourished by the psychedelic posters, album art and underground comics shared by his older siblings, sentimental pablum like “The Lawrence Welk Show” and schmaltzy mementoes that recalled “the good old days,” littered the landscape. Over the past few years, he has begun using his own ambivalence about that sort of kitsch to explore the conflicting waves of attraction and repulsion we feel when encountering imagery clichéd but familiar. As Mark’s soulmate and fellow painter Marion Peck explained, “The mythologized version we have of the past—a myth of life in ‘kinder, simpler times’—is extremely powerful. The passions it triggers drive the conservative political agenda that we as a nation are currently struggling with; its nostalgic tug has inspired much pure kitsch... with all unpleasantness or grit of any sort removed, clean and tidy like Disneyland. Perhaps on some level, we are recognizing the dangers of this whitewashing of history, and nausea is the result.”
In this series of paintings, as he has done time and again, Mark returns to his trusted cast of characters—his own pantheon of swap-meet spirit guides. The mythic figure of Abraham Lincoln is invested with an aura of divine power, despite being garbed in clownish Gay ’90s apparel. Jesus Christ, the impotent wizard, manifests as a shrunken figure playing a toy piano, then bears his eternal burdens astride a bicycle built for two. Languid girls who exude both a doll-like innocence and a knowing sensuality appear in nearly every painting, sometimes bearing fetuses tidily wrapped in their birth membranes, like hard candy in cellophane.
Within Mark’s conceptual landscape, these porcelain waifs represent the anima, the Jungian archetype that mediates the feminine aspects of the unconscious in the male’s emotional development. Indeed, Marion believes that each of the girls Mark paints is in one sense a self-portrait. In his paintings, the anima manifests as Sophia—the muse, the fount of creativity, and the goddess of wisdom. Asked about his close identification with the feminine, Mark said, “I believe that beyond the arena of art, the world would be a much better place if centered around a feminine perspective. The world has been really messed up by greedy white men who only work towards an agenda of personal wealth and power. It is this patriarchy of the past couple thousand years that causes so much strife. If the world was female-centered and if the dominant spirituality was based on the feminine and the earth, then human beings would know much more joy, peace, and harmony.”
Mark’s masterpiece Incarnation translates from the Latin as “in the flesh.” An ethereal beauty promenades through a formal garden, self-possessed as a Gibson Girl, tightly corseted in a bell-shaped gown of meat. The sumptuous hues and textures of meat have long fascinated Mark, for as he has asserted, flesh is what holds our spirits on the physical plane. Yet in the modern age, we have become so remote from the source of our food that we rarely think of the creatures that are killed for our consumption. Admittedly carnivorous as the next man, he is sensitive to the suffering inflicted by our meat-loving ways. In animist cultures, a hunter would pray to the spirit of the animal he had killed, acknowledging its sacrifice and asking for forgiveness. Perhaps Mark’s reverent oil paintings of the flesh are also a sort of incantation, a mantra written in muscle, fat and blood.
One of Mark’s most profound convictions is that we instinctively know that there is more to existence than the physical plane perceived by our five senses. He is fascinated by the idea that the world is an illusion like a diorama. This concept is subliminally present in all his paintings, in which mysterious scenarios play out in sharp relief against a misty panorama, as if set before a theatrical backdrop. Marion clarifies, “The way he builds a composition, the way he manipulates space in his paintings, placing the figures, pushing things forward or pulling them back, often gives them this sense of being on a stage, a little world apart from the ‘real’ world.
And this gives them a magical quality… They are their own world, their own place, much like the inner worlds of memory and imagination.”
Next year will mark a decade since Mark and Marion fell in love next to a moss-covered stone ball at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. As a result of their union, they have mutually transformed each other, both emotionally and creatively. Fatefully, Marion introduced Mark to the theories of archetypal psychologist James Hillman, which deepened Mark’s understanding of his own psyche and had a profound effect on his work.” Marion reflects, “It is amazing that it has been almost a decade since Mark and I met. In many ways our relationship seems fresh and new, but our connection is very deep, and grows deeper all the time. We are just traveling through this amazing life together, and are quite awed by it.” And Mark adds, “I feel like my ‘authentic’ life didn’t begin until I met Marion. Before we met, my art making and philosophical thinking were isolated, and they progressed slowly. Meeting Marion energized everything. Now Marion and I are on the journey through life’s adventure together, and it is spectacular.”
In the essay for his 2005 museum show Wondertoonel, Mark wrote that “children can see a world ensouled, where bunnies weep and bees have secrets, where ‘inanimate’ objects are alive.” Those childhood feelings of mystical illumination and spiritual connection with the energies of the universe still hold incalculable power for us today, though so many of us choose lives remote from nature. A sense of harmony with the natural world is vital to most primitive religions, and still takes the forefront in modern Japan, where Shinto beliefs assert that every rock and tree may be inhabited by a god. “When you stand before a giant sequoia, it is easy to feel this power,” Mark reflects. “But it is not just the rocks and trees of the natural world that are inhabited by gods. Dolls, toys, and statues are also inhabited by their own gods. A stuffed bunny, a chandelier, or a ginseng root possesses an intangible presence that is difficult to explain. It is a thing’s ‘essence’ that is its little god.”
Throughout his life as a painter, Mark has listened to the voice of the wunderkammer in which he is esconced, working surrounded by a thousand small spirits, each whispering their own stories and dreams. “The paintings always come from an unknown place,” said Marion. “He doesn’t really plan them, they more just come to him… When he conceives a painting, he will be lying on the couch for many hours in a daze, surrounded by mountains of books, dolls, and scraps of paper from the massive collection of images that inspire him. Once he starts actually painting, though, he is in an amazingly wakeful, concentrated state of mind... He is totally paying attention to every tiny movement of his brush. Sometimes he says he feels like he is threading a needle all day long, poor thing. He is an amazing mixture of scientific precision and dreaminess, artist and businessman, young rebel and old man.”
Mark believes that if we look backward, past the societal machinations of religion, we can sense a more fundamental source of meaning—the natural forces our ancestors interpreted as forest spirits and primordial gods, and wove into a rich tapestry of myth. That same reverent intimacy with the natural world is intrinsic to childhood, but as we enter adulthood, our connection with those elemental forces tends to fade away. While some of us remain aware of these natural conduits to the mysteries of the unconscious realms within us, those pathways are often occluded by the perpetual distractions of modern life. Yet the more we risk as a society—the delicate balance of nature, the freedom of childhood, the wonder of a world not fully understood—the more important it is for creative people to help us imagine what could be, and might have been.
Mythographer Joseph Campbell believed that the absence of religious ecstasy in modern life is what causes many of us to go off the grid and look into cults and drugs for the transcendent experience. One of the functions of mythology is to show us how to evolve into higher paths of thought and action, and ultimately to discover who we are and what course in life fulfills us. Though we live in an era where the idea of myth seems archaic, these universal stories are still springing up all around us in different guises—from urban myths to dream paintings, from science fiction movies to comic books. Many of the more visionary artists of today, whose minds are open to the sound of the universe, are continually conjuring new myths built upon the ephemera of our times—new traditions that respond to our environment, rather than that of some desert-dwelling nomadic tribe that disbanded thousands of years ago. Perhaps the most important function of the artist is to make mythology a living medium, enriching our perception of the world with new metaphors that reconnect us with the mysteries. In his finest work, Mark transfigures the most clichéd artifacts of our culture into a modern mythology that rouses the wondering child within, rendering a greater empathy for all living things.
As Michelangelo chiseled the marble which would become immortal sculptures like David and the Pietà, he focused on what he conceived of as “l’immagine del cuore,” or “the image of the heart” inside the stone. He believed the masterpiece already existed inside the stone—had always existed inside the stone—and his purpose was to release it through his imagination. Perhaps the artist is sometimes unveiling a fragment of something primordial and perhaps inevitable, trying to see through the material and into something universal. Though he feels it’s dangerous to focus too hard on that objective, Mark is forever reaching for it. “Once you become deliberate and have a specific aim or goal, I feel you lose the connection to the transcendental,” he said. “If an artist is truly authentic and subconsciously connected when making his art, then the art will have a strong mythological or spiritual resonance. It is through the letting go of an artist’s goals that the art gains power. Letting go is the great challenge.”
In our frenetic modern world, people often find themselves restless and lost, deprived of a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Our souls yearn for mystery and beauty, whether we seek their expression through nature, love, music or art. Imagination can act as a bridge toward all the things for which our hearts ache—the ineffable, the spiritual, the eternal. Consequently, the artist’s most exalted function is to hold open doors into the unknown to help us divine the elusive nature of who we really are, allowing those parts of us that are seeking transcendence to evolve. In this respect, the artist takes on a shamanic role, mediating between the physical and spiritual realms, fueling our passions and healing our weary souls. Asked if Mark feels this sense of mission, Marion replied, “Though he definitely would not use the term ‘shaman’ about himself, I think Mark certainly has the sense that he wants to bring something into the world, something it is craving and yearning for—soul, beauty, hope, things like that. He has an amazing something, a magic which has this very pure and loving quality, a joy. Everyone who is around him can feel it. There is something there that touches everyone in a very mysterious and powerful way, and they fall in love.”