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Mark Ryden’s Awe and Wonder

Painting that fine line between adorable and uncanny

Mark Ryden’s “Yoshi — The Forest Spirit,” 2011.

There are few artists like Mark Ryden. Mixing killer painterly skills with a mind-boggling sense of the absurd and fantastical, he’s achieved stardom of a very unique sort. As writer and gallerist Kirsten Anderson has remarked, Ryden appeals to a wild bunch, “from celebrities to museum board members to Goth high school kids.”

In advance of the publication of his latest book this month, Anima Animals, Lemonade chatted with the artist about childhood, the color pink, and Donald Trump.

I’m fascinated by the multiple, and not always overlapping, audiences of fans you must have.

If I choose to think about it—which I try to avoid—I do wonder where I fit in.

I often feel out of place. I don’t know which ‘world’ I or my art belong to. It can be strange to see my own work at an art fair like Art Basel Miami Beach, in the larger context of everything else being exhibited in that sphere. My art can seem out of place. I couldn’t define the typical person who loves my art. It seems like very different people from all walks of life respond to my work, which pleases me.

“Allegory of the Four Elements,” 2006.

Your work has a complicated relationship to childhood and childish things. What do you like about this sort of limbo zone, between sweet and unsettling, innocent and grotesque?

Children have very authentic, strong connections to the world of soul. Pain, fear, and anxiety are natural and necessary parts of the psyche. To attempt to deny the darker side of life is a delusion. The dark side will always find a way to surface. I think it’s a mistake to hide from it.

“Pink Yak,” 2018, on left. On right, Mark Ryden with “Pinkie (#154)”

You return to the color pink quite often. What does pink evoke for you?

Pink is the color of inner peace and joy. Pink combines the energy and passion of red with the gentleness and openness of white. Pink is the color of universal love.

What’s your personal relationship to animals like? Do you have pets?

Animals live in the same world we do, but with such different consciousness. When we look to the animal world we can appreciate and comprehend how they live in the moment, which I find very instructional. They may individually face what may appear as a challenging life where they may end up in the jaws or a predator at any moment, but they aren’t overwhelmed and stressed out by that thought.

I am inspired by the spiritual presence in animals. I do have a pet, a dog named JoJo. He is an unusual mix of Australian Cattle Dog and Pekingese which makes for one of the cutest dogs you have ever seen.

“Dowradu,” 2019.

There’s no one who paints eyes quite like you do. What’s your secret?

I think the secret with painting eyes is the same for the successful painting of anything. The secret lies in the subtleties. The tiniest, most minute little adjustments have enormous impact. An artist needs to find pleasure in getting lost in these subtleties. Some details may seem so ridiculously minuscule that they couldn’t possibly be important, but they are where the true power in art lies.

Do you tend to find inspiration from the ‘art world,’ or from more esoteric and unconventional sources?

I don’t find very much inspiration from the current art world. Newly created art rarely interests me. I am much more fascinated by images from the rest of contemporary culture.

I can find inspiration in a record cover, magazine advertisement, or a product package design, but I have a special passion for imagery from the past. It can be an antique scientific illustration, an old children’s book, a Victorian package design, or a great Old Master’s work of art. I look at quite a diverse range of sources. I describe myself as an iconophile: someone who simply loves icons, illustrations, and pictures.

Mark Ryden at home.

Would you rather delight people, or scare them a little bit?

It is never my intention to scare anyone with my art. I am surprised if anyone reacts that way. I think imagery that resonates with a deep part of the soul makes certain people uncomfortable or even scared. This certainly isn’t my intention. I think awe and wonder are reason enough to look at a work of art.

While your art can seem, at first glance, to be friendly and welcoming, there’s a lot of fraught stuff at play. Do you find that your paintings have offended people?

If someone finds something offensive, they are projecting their own shadow onto my work. Their offense is a reflection of their own mind, not something that is actually in my art. I don’t create imagery to intentionally push anyone’s buttons, that’s just not of interest to me.

“The Pumpkin President,” 1998. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin.

Your 1998 painting The Pumpkin President clearly intuited the rise of Donald Trump. You even included a tiny Abraham Lincoln in the corner, really foreshadowing how Trump would compare himself to Abe…

You didn’t mention the inclusion of Jesus in the birdhouse echoing his duplicitous use of Evangelical Christians. The two boys frolicking on the skull of a large dead animal….could they be Eric and Don Jr.? And what about the devil dog?

What’s an artwork that you’d love to own, in a fantasy scenario?

One of my favorite worldly objects is Ingres’ magnificent painting, La Grand Odalisque [1814], which is in the Louvre. Just last month an actual miniature version by Ingres himself went up for auction at Christie’s. What an amazing work of art someone gets to possess!

Even if something like that were in my reach, I think any pleasure in owning it would be outweighed by the anxiety of having an object of such value. I think that burden would sabotage the joy. I prefer my house full of wonderfully inspirational, but cheap, treasure.

See more of Mark Ryden’s work here, and be sure to snag a copy of his just-published book, Anima Animals. (Then check out #ConnectedByLemonade, too!)




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