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The year 2016 was infamous for death and grievous setback. While beloved celebrities died in droves, major western institutions were rocked to their core by poor choices (indeed the American democracy itself may be dead after voters decided to elect a nefarious con artist as president). The Great Barrier Reef, cheetahs, giraffes, beautiful compassionate elephants, and even teleosts all seem to be rapidly heading out the door as well.  It makes you wonder about 2017.

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However we are already getting away from the sad topic of 2016 obituaries. I loved David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Carrie Fisher as much as anyone, but I feel like their lives were celebrated by, you know, popular websites.  Ferrebeekeeper has always tried to emphasize scientists, artists, and people from my own life in the year-end obituaries, so I am leaving out David Bowie even though he arguably fits into “art” and “space” categories (and maybe “Deities of the Underworld”as well).  You can read amazing obituaries about Prince, Princess Leia, and the Thin White Duke anywhere.

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Harper Lee, (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) was famous for writing a single book,To Kill a Mockingbird, a child’s eye view of America on the precipice of sweeping social changes.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali (November 14, 1922 – February 16, 2016) was an Egyptian diplomat who helped orchestrate Egypt’s peace deal with Israel and later served as a largely ineffectual U.N. secretary-general.

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Umberto Eco  (January 5, 1932 – February 19, 2016) was an Italian novelist and semiotician who wrote popular works of fiction about medieval scholastic philosophy (!).

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Bob Ebeling, 89, was a booster rocket engineer who spent thirty years filled with remorse that he was unable to stop the ill-fated 1985 launch of the space shuttle Challenger (which was destroyed by faulty O-rings in the booster rockets).  His story is a cautionary tale for executives and politicians to listen to the people who build things.

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Jeremy Blake Ferrebee (August 6, 1985- March 18, 2016) was my cousin. Jeremy loved fishing and he was famously generous and kind, however he struggled mightily with personal demons in the form of substance abuse issues. I am worried that I will offend my family by mentioning his problems here, but I cared for Jeremy and I was sad about his death.  Our nation doesn’t just have a problem with substance abuse (a problem which is inextricably bound up with being a human) we have a problem even talking about this problem in a way which isn’t self-defeating.  I certainly don’t know what the answer to this is, but we had better keep working on it.

Merle Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016) was a country music star (ok, so we are slipping a pop star into this list) who came from a background of poverty and prison.  His songs address the hard-scrabble nature of rural life in the south and west with a mixture of sadness, machismo, and national pride.

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Marisol Escobar (May 22, 1930 – April 30, 2016) was a conceptual portrait sculptor of great originality (see Ferrebeekeeper tribute from spring).

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Elie Wiesel, (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016) was a Romanian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust.  His stark & simple prose detailed the atrocities he experienced in a Nazi death camp. Despite the darkness of his personal history, Wiesel was a great humanist and humanitarian.

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Edward Albee, (March 12, 1928 – September 16, 2016) was a playwright whose twisting inward-looking writings detailed the anomie of post-war American.  His plays ask probing questions about the possibility of finding true common ground in social relationships.

Bhumibol Adulyadej (December 5, 1927 – October 13, 2016) was the king of Thailand for a long time (see Ferrebeekeeper obituary).

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Mark McFarland (July 13, 1961 — November 29, 2016).  Mark and I were business partners. Together we created a line of animal building toys called”Zoomorphs.” After numerous corporate tribulations, we had a serious falling out.  Although he was tormented by dark implacable personal demons (see above), his toys delighted hundreds of thousands of children.

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John Herschel Glenn Jr. (July 18, 1921 – December 8, 2016) was an American pilot, engineer, and astronaut.  A war hero, who flew in over 122 combat missions during World War II and Korea, he was the first American to travel into Earth orbit in 1962. He later became a  United States Senator and then became the world’s oldest astronaut when he returned to space in 1998.

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Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928 – December 25, 2016) was an American astronomer who demonstrated the existence of dark matter through visionary work on galactic rotation.

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Richard Adams (May 9, 1920 – December 24, 2016) was a novelist who infused anthropomorphic fiction with zoology and naturalism (and with sociology and religion).  I have trouble with some of these concepts.  After all humans are animals too. maybe we need to revisit some of his works in future posts.

and there were so so many others–and I left a lot of people out. Sigh…good bye, 2016. We’re missing some people, but that is always the way of things. We will keep working to make it all better.

Queen Bee (Mark Ryden, 2014, oil on canvas)

Queen Bee (Mark Ryden, 2014, oil on canvas)

Today we are featuring a small painting by a contemporary painter, Mark Ryden (whose work has showed up on this blog before). This is “Queen Bee” a portrait which stands somewhat in contrast with Ryden’s usual style: although the painting does have the jewel-like illustration quality which constitutes half of his trademark; it notably lacks the dark narrative extravagance of earlier works. The best of Ryden’s oeuvre has the feel of a fairytale which has fallen through a dark hole in the world. “Queen Bee” is more elegiac. The emotionally empty pouting expression on the figure’s doll-like face works as a receptacle for whatever emotion the viewer wishes to project into it.

The glorious golden bee who is desperately assembling a hive from hair, grass, and leaves is the true subject of the work. Of course a single honey bee is an anomaly and a failure—honey bees are social organisms which can only survive and flourish as a hive. So the viewer is left to draw her own conclusions about the thematic meaning of the piece.

Although Ryden paints his own paintings (unlike many artworld superstars who leave lowly creative tasks to underpaid interns, apprentices, and assistants), he does hire Asian artisans to build the remarkable frames to spec. Look at how lovely the gilded hive is! Are these bees in the frame the real workers for the bee in the painting? There might be a subtle sting for the entire concept of fine art buried in that question.

Detail

Detail

This particular painting was made for charity. Ryden auctioned the piece off in the spring of last year and donated the proceeds to the World Wildlife Fund. While the piece did not fetch the princely multi-million dollar price associated with works by annointed art world insiders, you could certainly buy several houses in West Virginia with the proceeds. It is very good of Ryden to give to such a meaningful cause. One of these days, I’ll have to host a charity auction of my own paintings for the world’s endangered animals (sometime on down the road when I am not one of them).

The Tree of Life (Mark Ryden, 2007, oil on canvas) framed original

Here’s another strange painting from contemporary master of surrealism, Mark Ryden.  The subject is the “tree of life” a subject which comes up in religion, philosophy, science, and art.  A tree of life from Greek myth even found its way onto this blog several Octobers ago.  In Ryden’s interpretation, a princess with a bouquet and a baby sits suspended in a sentient tree.  Hidden among the boughs are the seven platonic solids.  Beneath her a bear and a monarch symbolize some unknown dualism.Somehow this painting combines Crivelli’s creepy diagram-like realism with half of the topics from Ferrebeekeeper.  Seriously there are hymenopterans, crowns, trees, mammals, a snake, and garden flowers (not to mention all of the colorsfrom a master’s palate).  The only things missing are a Chinese spaceship and an underworld god (and even the latter is hinted at by the death’s head and the tree’s occult eye).

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As always I am moved by Ryden’s realism and by his eerie milieu, but I am at a loss as to the cohesive meaning.  Perhaps there isn’t one and the piece is meant to convey atmospheric mystery and sacredness of a renowned tree which does not actually exist anymore than does platonic perfection.

The Magic Circus is a bizarre contemporary gothic painting created in 2001 by Mark Ryden, the king of the pop surrealist painters.  Ryden was born in the Pacific Northwest and grew up in Southern California.  At the beginning of his career, he was a commercial artist who created magazine illustrations, book covers, and album covers, but due to the outlandish visionary intensity of his work, he has successfully broken into the rarified top echelon of contemporary painters.  His works have sold very successfully for over a decade (although he is regarded as a bizarre outsider by the unofficial “academy” of curators and critics).

The Magic Circus is an eye popping juxtaposition of cartoonlike hybrid animal/toy characters, science book illustrations, and delicate vulnerable children.  The upbeat but sinister pastel circus landscape has been rendered with the precise and exacting realism of the finest illustration.  As with 16th century Flemish art, dark horrors lurk among the details. Looking past the dazzling crown and jewel-like bees and cheery dancing octopus, the viewer notices a striped winged demon with a shrunken head drinking a chalice of blood.   Jesus and Abraham Lincoln are rendered as toys and lifeless sculptures while a plush stuffed animal capers in the foreground with lively malice.

Many of Ryden’s works involve the idea that our icons and consumer goods are springing to malevolent life and taking over.   The Magic Circus has the visceral appeal of a child’s nightmare.  The toys are coming to life and putting on a show, but there is a dark and horrible side to the carnival. Within the interlocking “rings” of childlike delight, scientific materialism, and commercial exploitation, Ryden includes symbols and themes which he reuses again and again in his paintings.

Detail of “The Magic Circus”

Pop Surrealism takes kitsch elements from everyday life and arranges them in a way to maximize the emotional, sentimental, and psychological aspects of everyday symbols.  The narrative focus, realistic technique, and psychological intensity of this diffuse school have all been disparaged by “high-brow” art schools and abstract/conceptual artists for the past few decades.  Yet as the visual language of the internet becomes more pervasive (and as mainstream art languishes in a conceptual rut), Pop Surrealism has been finding broader acceptance

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