If you’ve ever landed on the subverted decadence of artist Mark Ryden’s automaton diorama “Memory Lane” on YouTube, you wouldn’t be blamed for binge-watching the self-operating machine on repeat. The mythical dreamscape playing out in a hand-carved, 8-by-10-foot carriage, set to the music of the showy 1890s hit “Daisy Bell,” is like diving headfirst into the dark and hilarious.
Whether a fan of pop-surrealism or not (Ryden has been dubbed “the godfather of the lowbrow style”), the beautiful absurdity of the functionally dysfunctional village where dolls of all shapes and sizes, line up for meat and ride around in gilded carriages is bewitching, head-scratching wonderment. Two identical Abraham Lincolns ride tandem on a bicycle and skeletons pass by in moving vehicles of various contraptions in an embellished world hued dusty pink.
Featured in the artist’s 2014 Gay Nineties West exhibit, “Memory Lane” perfectly encapsulates what Ryden’s paintings are about. He’s the artist who gave giant painted eyes to porcelain-faced girls in dresses amid surreal landscapes marked with peculiar symbolism. A favorite of Juxtapoz magazine, his CV also includes designing album covers for Michael Jackson (Dangerous), Red Hot Chili Peppers (One Hot Minute) and Aerosmith (Love in an Elevator).
As one of over 65 artists featured in Life Is Beautiful’s now-annual Crime on Canvas exhibit (where all works of art are for sale), Ryden’s work will soon be in Las Vegas, alongside Shepard Fairey, Amy Sol, Casey Weldon, Shag and Eric Joyner, in the show curated by the founders of the M Modern and Shag galleries.
Although Ryden says he’s still figuring out what he’ll be doing for the exhibit, he assures that there are a lot of exciting ideas. No surprise there, given his background. In addition to paintings with snow yaks, meat, Abraham Lincoln, Katy Perry and bunnies and deviant fantasyland–meets–children’s book themes, he designed the extravagantly bizarre costumes and sets for American Ballet Theatre’s Whipped Cream production.
When asked about his loyalty to playfulness in a dead-serious career, Ryden says, “Only a person of limited consciousness thinks play is just for children.
“Playfulness and imagination are the foundations of creativity. Of course, imagination and fantasy are absolutely essential for a person’s well-being and depth. It is vital, not only as an escape from work, but as the basis of creation and invention.”
In that creative space, Ryden finds an outlet for that which irks him. Known for working out of his subconscious and not always having a clear-cut reason or intention for the elements in his work, he manages to detail our estranged relationship with nature and the deep symbolism of trees (in religions and mythology) in his body of work titled The Tree Show. A meat eater who considers the inhumane operations of the meat industry and “the horror” connected with it, meat is a recurring theme in his work—but he identifies himself as an observer, rather than a preacher.
“I do feel we abuse our natural world for profit in a profound way,” Ryden says. “We mistreat—downright torture—the animals we use as food, and this is terribly wrong. Though I don’t necessarily use my art as a platform to communicate judgment, these ideas may work their way into my imagery, but in a more subtle [and] underlying way.”
But there is nothing subtle about the style in his oeuvre. In fact, there’s a fairly long list of artists now working in Ryden’s style—sometimes creating completely derivative works.
“I can’t succumb to the frustration of that,” Ryden says. “I realize there is a bigger dynamic going on, much more than a single person can own. A spirit of the time, a Zeitgeist is at work, part of the collective consciousness.
“However, there are specific artists who definitely cross the line with outright plagiarism. I’m not going to name names, but they know who they are.”