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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).

Detail

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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