Mark Ryden (b. Medford 1963-01-20) is an American (or perhaps I should say Californian) visual artist of the late 20th and early 21st century. He works out of a castle-like edifice in southern California and has had solo exhibitions since 1998.

Ryden is pretty widely recognised as one of the key contemporary representatives of lowbrow art, which many critics love to turn up their nose at. These are probably the same critics who hailed abstract expressionism as a great American achievement rather than a national embarrassment second only to the Dream Team's results at the 2002 World Basketball Championships. Which is fine with me since their high-brow credibility is pretty low in my book and the ghost of Kandinsky haunts them in their restless sleep. I see Ryden more as a pop art surrealist in the tradition of Warhol, just more gifted and spirited.

Ryden generally produces work dominated by strong colours and subtle movement. He often works with bright whites and pastels but the result always screams "nuthouse" more than it says "playground." And that includes the ones involving playgrounds or toys, which as often as not look like Chucky's air-brushed relatives. His darker works, to which woody textures and brown colours are often central, are no less unsettling but appear deeper and of a more spiritual bent. His preferred media is oil on various surfaces.

Many of Ryden's artworks are populated by a set of recurring theme figures that include bees, bunnies, and young girls with big eyes. These are intertwined with various alchemical and mystical symbols, meat (prime beef and lots of it), Abe Lincoln, and Christina Ricci (lots of her, too, but I'm not complaining). The pieces with these themes often give the impression of being some sort of post-hippie earth-mother worship conducted in the back room of a London goth club. All this from the distorted perspective of a male artist who, of course, has no fucking idea what an earth mother is and can only produce platonic reflections of powers he doesn't quite comprehend.

Perhaps the most striking figures of Ryden's are the girls. The synthesis of a post-WWII, pre-pubescent Dick and Jane and the sexualized image and identity of the same girl in the 2000s is as disturbing as it is accurate. Perhaps his choice of a child actress like Ricci as a model is not coincidental as the artist tries to put a finger on the national neurosis that leads to six-year-old girls being tarted up and paraded around like finger food for paedophiles. There is nothing subtle in this representation--indeed, Ryden is overall very American in his lack of subtlety.

Ryden is expert at depicting the plasticised, packaged character of modern spirituality and the emptiness of those who buy it to fill voids of their own making. He is as distant as your facebook friends and as accessible as knowledge is in the age of wikipedia. He maintains a close relationship to mainstream popular culture in his work for artists such as Kirk Hammett, Stephen King, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I think all this makes him one of the most qualified and fitting visual artists to portray our culture's overmedicated, fin-de-millennium psychopathy.

I thoroughly enjoy most of Ryden's art and have done so ever since I found it on an album cover featuring one of his audience favourites, Clear Hearts Grey Flowers, which was his impression of Jessicka Fodera and company circa 2000. He maintains a web presence at which he exhibits an ever-changing set of works. Very few pieces have a permanent presence. Many disappear for good after the limited run of prints or booklets sells out. Original works of Ryden's had sold for up to $800000 at the time of writing. His prices are certainly not low-brow but I'd stop shy of calling him overrated.

Now I'm jes' a country boy who don't know a whole lot about art so I could be dead wrong in everything I've written. I'm not saying you need to buy his stuff but Ryden is worth paying attention to. If you don't get him you're probably not crazy enough to live in these times and should consider a future on the receiving end of cryonics.

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