INTERVIEW: MARK RYDEN
The Godfather of Pop Surrealism
Fans of Mark Ryden’s fantasy world featuring fuzzy animals, big-eyed girls, meat and big daddy Abraham Lincoln will be delighted to learn that Taschen has now published a popular, and more affordable, edition of his “carnival of curiosities.” First issued in 2011, the big-format and limited edition of Pinxit was gorgeous, yet came with a hefty price tag of close to $1,000. With an eye on the new book, Plastik* asked the celebrated American artist about Abraham, Alice, raw meat and other major sources of inspiration.
What’s your obsession with Abraham Lincoln? Is he America’s ultimate father figure?
There is something indefinable that is endlessly fascinating about Abraham Lincoln. We are exposed to the image of Lincoln from the time we're young children. 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 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.
It seems you are a fan of Alice in Wonderland. Is that correct? And if so, what do you like so much about little Alice and her adventures?
The story of Alice in Wonderland was perhaps my first entry into surrealism as a child. The way the story messes with logic certainly appealed to me as a child and still does. There is something incredibly special about going through a portal into a world of fantasy, imagination. It is a descent into the unconscious. The visions and themes resonate with generation after generation of children. They are very powerful.
If you were a character in Alice in Wonderland, who WOULd you be and why?
Hmmm, maybe the White Rabbit, because he always feels he is running late and behind schedule, and so do I. I might have a bit of the Hatter in me as well.
What would you cite as (other) major sources of inspiration?
I’ve often said that it is the diversity of my inspirations that most defines my art. I look at many things for inspiration! I collect and hoard lots of things and lots of junk. My studio and house is overflowing with stuff. I collect old children’s books, interesting product packages, toys, photographs, medical models and religious statues. I also have an extensive collection of books on art. I love the old masters more that contemporary art, so most of my books are on artist like Ingers, David, Bronzino, and Carpacio with just a few contemporaries like Neo Rauch and Loretta Lux.
Another recurring element in your work is raw meat. Is that your take on the classic image of the skull, the ultimate reminder of the one certainty we face in life?
I don’t use meat as reminder of our eminent death, but as a reminder that we are made of meat now while we are alive. Meat is the physical substance that keeps our non-physical souls in this reality. Many people think there is a political purpose for my use of the imagery of meat, but it is primarily spiritual in nature. Ethically, I am not against the consumption of meat, I do feel we should treat the animals we eat with care and respect and thank them for providing us with a meal. I think it is horrible the way we treat our animals that are destined to become food. We practically torture them before a brutal slaughtering. It does not have to be that way.
To what extent should your work be seen as an allegory?
I wouldn’t want there to be any “shoulds” in seeing my work. If people interpret a particular painting as an allegory of something, I am pleased that my painting has inspired the thought, but for me it is not necessary for the viewer to have that particular interpretation. I paint with some allegorical intent in some works (some intentional, some not), but I wouldn’t say that allegory dominates my work. If someone looking at one of my paintings gets lost in a search for the allegory they may miss out on the simple experience of taking in the image and being open to the thoughts and feelings that are hopefully conjured up.
The big round eyes you use for some of the animals (Snow Yak for example) remind me of Japanese manga art. Is that something you are interested in or admire?
Japanese Manga art is one of my many visual interests. I love the films of Hayao Miyazaki, both for it’s content and it’s aesthetics.
You are widely credited with having invented “pop-surrealism.” Now, I have looked up the term in the dictionary, but could you briefly define the term in your own words. Or have you grown tired of man's constant urge to label and categorize things?
Pop Surrealism has been a difficult art movement to define. There are some many artists who’s work is very diverse that seem to be put under the label. I would say something the artists share is an approach from outside the usual channels of the art world, a weariness towards the old, stale ways of thinking about art, a desire to return to figuration, and a dissatisfaction with the sterile intellectual elitism which modernism created, and finally, not only a use of the imagery of kitsch and pop culture, but a genuine affection for it.
Assuming money and availability are not an issue, what three works of art would you like to own and have in your home?
Miro’s “Harlequin Carnival”, Ingres “Odalisque”, and Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”, because no matter how much I look at them, I never get tired of them. I think actually having Botticelli’s “Venus” in you home would be like having a visitation from a divine being.
If you were not an artist/ painter, what would you like to be?
A scientist or mathematician.
Any words of advice to young upcoming artists?
The best advice I have always given any artist is to enchant yourself, and others will be enchanted too. Also, the harder you work the more luck you have.
INTERVIEWED BY PETER SPEETJENS