Mark Ryden in Tokyo

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The incredible Mark Ryden opened a new show of paintings last week in Tokyo. Kirsten Anderson -- proprietor of Seattle's Roq La Rue Gallery, author of Pop Surrealism: The Rise of Underground Art, and editor-at-large of Hi-Fructose Magazine -- made the trip over and kindly shares this report and photos:
Last week, a gaggle of cohorts and I descended on Tokyo to see the Mark Ryden "Snow Yak" exhibition at Tokyo's prestigious Tomio Koyama Gallery, Ryden's first show since 2007's "Tree Show" exhibit in LA. We were treated to a room full of delicate drawings and sketches, with the cavernous main room set aside for the paintings. The new show signaled a slight departure in Ryden's oeuvre, with a marked change in palette, which consisted mainly of different tones of white, grays and blues, with occasional rosy tones thrown in. Closer inspection also revealed a rougher painting technique than his usual creamy and seamlessly blended technique, with some paintings even layered with globular paint applied by spatula. Backgrounds were kept minimal and the frames were a simple clean white as opposed to Ryden's usual hyper-crafted, surreally ornate frames of the past. Staying consistent however was Ryden's trademark imagery that often uses pop iconography for archetypal themes including delicate girls (tellingly named "Sophia" and posed in Madonna-esque poses), bees, disembodied Lincoln heads, and supposed-to-be-really-cute-but-actually-highly-disturbing toy animals, including the ridiculously-expressioned but immaculately-painted title piece from the show, "Snow Yak". Other highlights included "Sophia's Bubbles" featuring the title's goddess figure with strategically-placed bubbles representing the solar system. The show favorite seemed to be "Heaven" featuring a platinum blonde waif and her companion, the benevolent yet mighty Snow Yak.
Mark Ryden's site


  1. Am I the only one who doesn’t understand the fuss over this guy? I’m a fan of (some) tacky kitsch, but his work doesn’t even appeal to me on that level.

  2. I love Mark’s work and can’t get enough of it. I just got his new Tree Show book and I am still hungry for more. Thanks David for keeping us up to date on the incomparable Ryden! =D

  3. @#2 Cryptique,
    Nope you’re not. I’m in your camp. His stuff reminds me of those big-eyed weird kids from the 70s

  4. I’m also looking for the Emperor’s Clothes for most Pop Surrealist art. It’s creepy, the draftsmanship is amazing, but it all seems rather formulaic. How is this genre different from Thomas Kinkade’s work? I’ve always found Norman Rockwell’s illustrations remarkable, but few of his paintings (The Problem We All Live With, e.g.) seem to make the jump from Illustration to Art.

  5. Tokyo, huh? Perfect. They send us big-eyed girls being raped, and we send them big-eyed girls being … whatever.

    That’ll show the bastards what to do with big-eyed girls!


    The Keenes, I think; a couple that pioneered the boogley-eyed cliche. One of the funniest juxtapositions in Art that I remember is that in the early 60s the Keenes had a gallery right next door to Larry Felinghetti’s City Lights bookstore at North Beach. Imagine: the Mecca of the Beats cheek-to-jowl with the pioneers of Big-Eyed Kitsch.

  6. but few of his paintings (The Problem We All Live With, e.g.) seem to make the jump from Illustration to Art.

    And what is ‘Art’ exactly?

  7. Now if some of his porcelain nymphs could be depicted playing the ukulele…….

    Lowbrow is lowbrow, and calling it “Pop Surrealism” is a lame attempt at brand engagement.

  8. love ryden’s technique, style and execution. sometimes his composition tends to get a little bogged down, but comparing him to kinkade? oh, the horror!

  9. “What is ‘Art’ exactly?” Art is just your reaction to something. You perceive an object external to you or even an internal emotion or feeling, and then record your reaction to it in whatever medium you choose. Technical ability is less important than your personal honesty in communicating your subjective experience. Mark Ryden isn’t being very honest about his sexual attraction to little girls if you ask me.

    I think there really is such a thing as kitsch or false sensibility. Kinkade meets that definition for me, Ryden I’m still not sure about.

    “Technique is the failure of style” — John Waters

  10. I don’t like Mark Ryden’s artwork; it’s techincally pretty amazing, but in terms of content, there’s nothing for me there. I think I understand what sensations he’s trying to evoke, but for me it only registers intellectually, not emotionally.

    I think the difference between illustration and fine art is that the former is literally an idea explicitly illustrated, while the latter is often based on deeper emotion or observation (I can’t really articulate what I mean, but there is a distinction to me). Illustration is left-brained; art is right-brained.

    Often in illustration, the idea is developed by a copywriter or art director and executed by the illustrator; in cases like Ryden’s, the ideas are his own, but he holds onto the conventions of illustration rather than venturing into the realm of real expressive art (in my opinion, of course).

    So, I would say he is a great illustrator – a technician – not necessarily a great artist. He’s Joe Satriani, not Jimi Hendrix.

  11. P.U. it’s amazing what passes for art these days. Just make a picture with freaky people in them or wacky animals and the blogosphere will salivate. Bark dogs! Bark!

  12. @17 CHRONOPHOBE:

    See, for me, it’s the opposite: I get an emotional reaction out of this, but not an intellectual one. Maybe if I thought about technique, I’d been intellectually engaged, but for me the appeal’s just in the emotional, evocative quality. Sort of the same way I feel about Maxwell Parrish, for example.

  13. I like Ryden’s stuff. The Lincoln pic is also apropos, given that Abe’s 200th birthday was yesterday.

  14. @ Noen

    I was curious to know what was Gpeare distinction between art and Art.

    From what I’ve experienced, everybody has their own definition of what art is. Often, it includes what the person likes or respects and excludes what the person dislikes or cannot relate to. Some people define art as broadly as whatever one does or create which doesn’t have survival and reproduction as its main purpose. Others place importance in technical skills, some rate an underlying meaning as more important… I’ve settled for remaining an agnostic on that one.

    I do like Ryden’s work, for purely aesthetic reasons. I love his colour palettes, the softness of his brush work. I am not disturbed by the odd mixes of child-like figures, sexuality and blood, they just seem like modern, dream-like fairy tales. Not any creepier than original Grimm stories.

    And judging Ryden’s potential sexual urges based on his work would be hypocritical of me. I like his figures and, personally , I much prefer drawing females even though I have no sexual attraction to them. I don’t draw everything out of my own sexual desires and I see no reason why I should think that of Ryden simply on the basis that he is male.

    I’m not saying everybody ought to like it. It’s none of my business. But thousands of scholars have been trying to pinpoint what constitutes ‘art’ and still don’t agree. I really doubt that the matter will be solved right here, in this comment thread.

  15. I like Ryden’s work, and after seeing “The Creatrix” at the recent Juxtapoz retrospective, I was even more impressed. I’d seen some of his smaller works over the years, but that was impressive and grand. I wonder how this change of tecnique will compare to his smoother style when I get a chance to see the new works, but he really has a unique vision.

  16. Noen: Ryden uses a number of recurring motifs in his conceptual continuity. I don’t see any dishonesty in it. Lincoln? Meat? Bees? Fuzzy animals? Religious symbology? If these things speak of sexual proclivities to you, then perhaps, Mr. Freud, it is you that is being dishonest with yourself. I think there is a lot he is expressing about loss of innocence, but I don’t see his work as pedophilic.

    Also, in all of my comment history, you will not find one buzzkill comment on matters of taste. If I don’t like something, I skip it and move on. In a true gallery of wonderful things, there are bound to be things that don’t appeal to all tastes. I am tired of people going out of their way to try to steal others’ joy.

  17. noen, art is what the artist says it is. period. when we get to “Art”, that is up to the critics, gallery owners and art historians. that is the way of things. and i say that as someone who has studied art history fairly intensely for the last 30 someodd years. chronophobe, his work is NOT illustration. illustration is work-for-hire, and usually is drawn/painted/photoed/’shopped/etc, with areas set aside for type, copy, logos and etc… not to say that his work ins’t illustrative, all works done so representationally are illustrative, from rapheal to matisse, from giotto to maplethorpe. ryden’s work may seem cold and clinical, but it is “Art”. ferrjerr, once again, you gotta let your douche light shine! let out that ignorance! just let it go.

  18. @ Sekino
    “I was curious to know what was Gpeare distinction between art and Art.”

    I don’t understand this sentence. Which illustrates why everyone having their own definitions for things is not a good idea. I understand the “art is what artists do” position but I’m wary of fully adopting it. Surely there is a dialectic between that and the academic definition of art. It certainly can be very bewildering. Eventually you just do what interests you and try to put as much of your self into it.

    I’m not particularly impressed with Ryden’s technique. You can find hundreds of artists with his level of skill or better.

    @ Phikus
    “If these things speak of sexual proclivities to you, then perhaps, Mr. Freud, it is you that is being dishonest with yourself. I think there is a lot he is expressing about loss of innocence, but I don’t see his work as pedophilic.”

    Yeah, you could be right. I was molested as a child so I have a certain sensitivity towards imagery like his. I could be projecting. I most likely am a little but I still feel I’m right. It’s very hard to tell the difference between one’s own feelings and those of the artist. Most people respond to his art by thinking it’s kind of “creepy”. To me that shouldn’t be discounted.

    Darren Garrison brings up Henry Darger with whom I have no problem at all. Darger drew little girls with penises because he literally didn’t know what female anatomy looked like. He would also be the anti-Ryden because his children kept their innocence in spite of all the horrible things done to them in his art. Which was considerable. Despite his imagery, there is a glaring lack of sexuality in Henry Darger’s works. Contrast that with Mark Ryden, whose imagery contains almost no overt sex and yet positively drips with repressed sexuality. I think it would be interesting to exhibit them together. So maybe Ryden isn’t so bad after all.

  19. noen, i’m telling you, that is the very definition of what art is. it is what the artst says it is. it’s not an opinion. ask the director of MoMa, or the Met, or the Guggenheim, they will tell you exactly the same thing. also, ryden is part of an “art” movement : pop surrealism. which means that art historians will look more closely at these artist’s work, then, say, mine.

  20. Well, as for the art versus Art question, I actually think that absolutely anything can be Art. That is the realm of aesthetics, and I’m with Barnett Newman on that one (“Aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds.”) I am interested in exploring my own response to Art, and understanding the responses of others. Not wanting to buzzkill. Just to understand what others see in Ryden’s (or any of the Pop Surrealists’) work. At this point, the genre feels to me like 90% formula (take image of extreme innocence, put a twist on it that makes it evil, makes it creepy, or sexualizes it). Conceptually, what does it have to say?

  21. gpeare, great question! getting a real, viscereal aesthetic experience from a work of art is an amazing thing, and that is what draws me to certain artists, and art movements. i also say that seeing a work in person, in context, and seeing it in print are two completely different animals. dekooning in a book looks like a fairly blank sheet, but up close and personal, his work is like a revelatory diagram of his searching. an amazing thing. the same with pollock, dali, picasso, monet, vincent. when you see the “water lily” series in print, ho-hum, but in person….fuck! what do i see in ryden’s work? a return to a more Renaissance style using icons of his youth juxtaposed with iconic images of today, as well as a kind of ‘secret language’ of symbols. there is a certain underlying mystery his paintings have. his work also has kind of a creepy whimsy that i find is pretty uniquely his. i believe the pop surrealist thing is just a label stuck on these artists by an art critic, writing for an art magazine, and that most of the artists would rather not be stuck with any type of label, especially with the word “pop” in it. another art critic labeled it as “lowbrow” . that will only really matter further down the road as the art historians piece together who had the most influence on who, etc… the thing about these artists was that before they had gained any real fame(or infamy) they were working with very similar themes in very diverse and far-flung areas, each completely unaware of the others (with a few exceptions). now, they do group shows together and seem to be embracing it, so…more power to ’em , i say. beats flippin burgers all day.

  22. @28

    I appreciate your clarification. However, my point wasn’t that you- or anyone else- should like or understand Ryden’s work.

    What perplexes me is how we have to somehow justify art in order for it to be art, like it has to pass some test for which there are no specific or rational parameters.

    I think we can agree that art involves a response that is pleasing or otherwise stimulating to the viewer. Based on that, how is it any different than most people I know being absolutely delighted with a fresh, ripe tomato while I simply can’t swallow one. I hate tomatoes. There is nothing anyone could say or do to make them more palatable to me.

    In most cases, there is nothing that could be said or explained about any artwork to someone who dislikes it that would make their response any different. I just find it is unfair to demand such a justification in order for a work of art to be acknowledged as a work of Art.

    At this point, the genre feels to me like 90% formula (take image of extreme innocence, put a twist on it that makes it evil, makes it creepy, or sexualizes it). Conceptually, what does it have to say?

    Unless Ryden spells it out, I have no clue what it means. Again, I like the visuals and I hate guessing meanings from cryptic symbolism. Maybe it means nothing at all. But I’ll counter that if formulaic, and foofy sexualized imagery isn’t Art, then national galleries need to discount and clear out their Rococo paintings inventory.

  23. #29 excellent point. I never got Warhol until I saw the Brillo Boxes in person; an entire cow wallpapered room full of Maos.

  24. Ryden makes fascinating pictures but his nose is jammed up the ass of the Liberal Artiste catechism. (A painting mocking Barbie? A painting mocking Nazis?) If he just realized that introducing simpleton adolescent politics only makes people roll their eyes, he’d be a much better artist and probably a better human being too.

  25. Mintphresh:

    And no more naked babies or reclining courtesans. Quel ennui! We’ve seen one, we’ve seen ’em all ;)

  26. mr pseudonym, IS he mocking them? or does he use them, as well as asian food packaging imagery and antique toy imagery, etc… to use as glyphs for his visual communication with the viewer. is he introducing the “simpleton adolescent politics”, or is that a meaning that you are inserting into the work. ‘cus i don’t see it. also, did he come to your house one morning and pee on your hash-browns? ‘cuz that would make me think he was a bad human being! or are you just projecting there, too?

  27. Well I studied Art History myself and I simply cannot see anything beyond vaguely entertaining illustrations here.

    I understand he is very successful at his craft, and good luck to him.

    Ryden did study illustration at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena which has a “strong “real world” focus, emphasizing craftsmanship, technique, and professionalism while somewhat de-emphasizing theory.”

    I could possibly see some influence of the Nazarenes (an early German Romanticist movement) but even that would require a very steep abstraction gradient.

    They look like something Franklin Mint could well indeed focus on as a new line of merchandise.

    Am I saying you are dumb if you like his work? No, not at all. Whatever floats your boat, as they say. But Art it ain’t.

  28. Well I studied Art History myself and I simply cannot see anything beyond vaguely entertaining illustrations here.

    Well if we’re pitching credits, I did too. Visual Arts is my BA and I’m now studying animation (granted animation is still not considered a high art in America). I fail to see how this makes art in general any less arbitrary. There is no single true authority in art.

  29. Something can be designated “art” by the observer and/or the creator. One doesn’t necessarily need the other for art to exist.

    Condescending commentary like “simpleton adolescent politics” speaks more about the author than the artist.

    I, for one, don’t expect Mark’s art to be profound or complex. For me, it doesn’t have to be either of those to succeed. It only has to stimulate a response – either through subject or his craftsmanship – and he does an amazing job on both levels for a lot of my fellow observers.

  30. The way I see this, is the creator is the one who determines if their creation is art. Now, their creation may be considered lousy, unimportant or ineffectual, but that does not change the fact that the person who created the work considers their creations art.

    The observer’s opinion is only important to the observer.

    In the end we are the art. The artist creates in us indignation, serenity, wonder, disgust, love, hatred. Our emotions are the medium. Our reaction is the ultimate expression of their emotions and ideas.

  31. phikus, back atcha homie! foet, sekino, enjoying the hell out of the conversation, folks! i remember once, i got in a SHITLOAD of trouble for touching a picasso painting. it was a retrospective of his and some other cubist painters, however, this one painting of a queen of hearts playing card really caught my attention. i kept looking at the piece, then looking at it from the side, over and over. but, as i explained to the nice guard as he was grabbing my arm, it looked so 3-dimensional that i HAD to touch it, just to be sure it was just paint on a flat canvas. for any out there who are curious, it was.

  32. MinTy,

    Molesting Picasso, ey? God title for an essay?

    There’s a sign in the Uffizi that, translated, says something like:

    “Do not touch the paintings. It is forbidden, illegal, and finally useless.”

  33. Foetus: I watched while Ron English air-brushed a realistic swimming pool on the concrete driveway of the housing coop he lived in, across the street from the one I lived in, here in Austin. It was grand!

  34. phikus, we need to move austin to florida. maybe someplace with a nice beach and tiki bars. just a thought.

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