Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Introducing Mark Ryden's "The Gay '90s"

I must once again direct all of my faithful readers to the fantastic blog Ektopia, which just posted a really embarrassingly complimentary review of my introduction for Mark Ryden's recent book The Gay '90s. Jay writes about something interesting almost every day, so you should make Ektopia a regular visit.

Since I was mortified to discover, upon close perusal of the introduction in question, that Rizzoli must have assigned one of its less promising interns as copyeditor, I thought I would post the entire original essay here for anyone who'd prefer to read it in its original state, before the excision of overly subtle phraseology and the insertion of puerile grammatical errors. Enjoy!


"Mark Ryden and the Transfiguration of Kitsch"
by Amanda Erlanson

We humans are time travelers. While our bodies move forward in time at a constant rate, our minds are unfettered, and can move back and forth through time at will. In our idle moments, we cannot resist the bittersweet allure of nostalgia, and love to daydream over souvenirs of times gone by — cherished trinkets that allow us to reanimate an experience long past or evoke alternate versions of reality. As Marcel Proust famously mused, “When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered… the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls… bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.” Through communion with those objects that resonate for each of us individually, we are able to conjure a delicious sense of longing for some wondrous time when there was still magic in the world, when nature abounded with mysterious things that seemed invested with a kind of spiritual aura.

Doubtless primitive men also wondered upon their sacred amulets and fetishes, much as pilgrims in the Middle Ages journeyed far to gaze on mysterious relics associated with a miracle or infused with the holy effluence of a saint. During the Renaissance, collecting a multifarious display of eclectic objects and natural anomalies was de rigueur for any well-heeled aesthete. Their “cabinets of curiosities” or wunderkammeren were the precursors of the natural history museums we visit today in order to gaze upon the wonders of creation. As the rapid changes of the Industrial Revolution swept aside the natural world, an existential emptiness sprang up in the hearts of men. Having lost touch with the mysteries of the natural world and the predictable rhythms of tradition, they sought to fill that vacuum with a utopian fantasy of the pastoral idylls of yore. With the simultaneous advent of mass reproduction, the glorification of memory was soon popularized and commodified, leading to the frenzied production of nostalgic mementoes calculated to pluck the heartstrings of every segment of society. As those objects traveled through time and their original purpose became obsolete, their essence shifted to symbolize something subtly different for each succeeding generation.

The arbiters of the “highbrow” art world disdain nostalgia and its physical manifestation, “kitsch,” as the pathetic refuge of the uncultured masses, and uphold appreciation of the abstract and conceptual as the distinction of the refined mind. Yet the universal archetypes that connect us all are not nourished within the haughty academies of artistic formalism. They grow within each of us, fed by the dark underground river of our thoughts, feelings and dreams. When we come across a stuffed bunny, a tin robot, or a storybook that sets off a haunting resonance within us, something deep in our psyche has recognized a conduit between the waking world and the fertile landscape of the unconscious.

Despite its tawdry reputation, kitsch is a perennial focus of contemporary art, but artists like John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Paul McCarthy approach their subject from the supercilious viewpoint of camp, laughing at its “bad taste” while simultaneously reveling in it. Whereas an artist like Jeff Koons takes an ironic distance from kitsch, transforming a valueless object like a gaudy porcelain figure of Michael Jackson into something valuable — a work of art — by mockingly exaggerating its cheapness, Mark Ryden cherishes his ostensibly vulgar subjects, elevating them to the status of sacred talismans through the time-honored craftsmanship passed down to him from master painters like Ingres, David and Bouguereau. In doing so, he bestows on them new layers of meaning and ambiguity, reawakening them as symbols that can evolve and inspire.

For Mark Ryden, nostalgia is more than a panacea, a gentle salve that soothes the raw edges of modern existence — it is the very lifeblood of art. When he sits down to paint, he is surrounded by a jumble of wonderful old toys, books and peculiar artifacts that whisper to him in their myriad voices, sparking distant memories and forging strange connections. But even a lover of nostalgic artifacts has his limits. Recently, Ryden has been pushing himself to embrace an arena of kitsch so egregious that it makes him feel strangely uncomfortable, and challenges his own aesthetic boundaries — the era quaintly known as “The Gay ‘90s.” He explained, “I would look at modernist attitudes that detest the taboo subject matter of nostalgia, imagination, and beauty, and think about how incredibly closed-minded this attitude is. But I came to realize I have my own thresholds. I gravitated towards the Gay ‘90s because it is the extreme of ‘distasteful kitsch.’ I wanted to play with it. Why not try to pull the lowest of the low into the highest of the high? It is interesting how those exclusionary modernist attitudes are as ‘olde tyme’ now as the 1890s were when modernist thinking was born.”

Today, the 1890s have passed from living memory, and all that remains is a saccharine fantasy. Ironically, the period never actually existed as we now conceive it — it is a frothy confection concocted in hindsight almost two decades later. Our collective imagination of that time is shaped by the kitsch left behind by a thirty-year wave of nostalgia that arose in the early twentieth century. Gay ‘90s mania came to a head with the rise of a new consumer culture in the Roaring ‘20s, an era bracketed by two depressions and two world wars. Conservatives reacted to the turbulent times by pouring out waves of nostalgia about the golden age of their youth. For them, the 1890s were the equivalent of the 1950s for us today — an era of prosperity and idyllic small-town life, the last moments of a simpler time before the advent of automobiles and recorded music. Looking backward, they recalled the “good old days” of straw hats and striped suits, marching bands and barbershop quartets, Gibson Girls and bicycles built for two. Yet in the real 1890s, most Americans either worked on farms or in urban factories, and this small-town utopia existed only in summer enclaves where well-to-do people from the city went to escape the soot and heat. This extraordinary nostalgia for the Gay ‘90s was one of our longest episodes of cultural self-hypnosis, and lasted well into the 1940s.

By the 1960s, when Ryden was a child, the lingering artifacts generated by this fad had begun to seem trite and old-fashioned. Even as a boy, he loved to spend his days drawing or painting alone at his desk, dreaming of Egyptian mythology and metaphysical numbers. But while his creativity was being nourished by the countercultural album art, psychedelic posters and underground comics his older siblings shared with him, he was also being exposed to sentimental pablum like The Lawrence Welk Show and schmaltzy trinkets that recalled “the good old days.” So a few years ago, Ryden started to use his own ambivalence about that sort of kitsch to explore the conflicting waves of attraction and repulsion we feel when we encounter imagery that feels clichéd and sanitized, as if a living symbol has been bowdlerized or neutered to satisfy some corrupt cultural agenda.

In this series of paintings, as he has done time and again, Ryden returns to his trusted cast of characters — his own pantheon of swap-meet spirit guides. The mythic figure of Abraham Lincoln is invested with an aura of divine power, despite being done up in clownish Gay ‘90s apparel. Jesus Christ, the impotent wizard, manifests as a shrunken figure playing a toy piano, then bears his eternal burdens astride a bicycle built for two. Languid girls who exude both a doll-like innocence and a knowing sensuality appear in nearly every painting, sometimes bearing fetuses tidily wrapped in their birth membranes, like hard candy in cellophane.

Considered within Ryden’s conceptual landscape, these porcelain waifs represent the anima, the Jungian archetype that mediates the feminine aspects of the unconscious in the male's emotional development. In his paintings, the anima manifests as Sophia — the muse, the fount of creativity, and the goddess of wisdom. Asked about his close identification with the feminine, Ryden said, “I believe that beyond the arena of art, the world would be a much better place if centered around a feminine perspective. The world has been really messed up by greedy white men who only work towards an agenda of personal wealth and power. It is this patriarchy of the past couple thousand years that causes so much strife. If the world was female-centered and if the dominant spirituality was based on the feminine and the earth, then human beings would know much more joy, peace, and harmony.”

In Ryden’s masterpiece Incarnation, which translates from the Latin as “in the flesh,” an ethereal beauty walks through a formal garden, as self-possessed as a Gibson Girl, tightly corseted in a bell-shaped gown of meat. The sumptuous hues and textures of meat have long fascinated Ryden, for as he has asserted, meat is what holds our spirits on the physical plane. Yet in the modern age, we have become so remote from the source of our food that we rarely think of the creatures that are killed for our consumption. Though Ryden is as carnivorous as the next man, he tries to be cognizant of the suffering inflicted by our meat-loving ways. In animist cultures, a hunter would pray to the spirit of the animal he had killed, thanking it for its sacrifice and asking for forgiveness. Perhaps Ryden’s reverent oil paintings of the flesh are also a sort of incantation, a mantra written in muscle, fat and blood.  

In the essay for his 2005 museum show Wondertoonel, Ryden wrote that “children can see a world ensouled, where bunnies weep and bees have secrets, where ‘inanimate’ objects are alive.” Those childhood feelings of mystical illumination and spiritual connection with the energies of the universe still hold incalculable power for us today, though so many of us choose lives remote from nature. A sense of harmony with the natural world is vital to most primitive religions, and still takes the forefront in modern Japan, where Shinto beliefs assert that every rock and tree may be inhabited by a god. “When you stand before a giant sequoia, it is easy to feel this power,” Ryden reflected. “But it is not just the rocks and trees of the natural world that are inhabited by gods. Dolls, toys, and statues are also inhabited by their own gods. A stuffed bunny, a chandelier, or a ginseng root possesses an intangible presence that is difficult to explain. It is a thing’s ‘essence’ that is its little god.”

Throughout his life as a painter, Ryden has listened to the voice of the wunderkammer which he has coalesced around himself, working surrounded by a thousand small spirits, each whispering of its own stories and dreams. “The paintings always come from an unknown place,” said Marion Peck, his wife and fellow painter. “He doesn’t really plan them, they more just come to him… When he is conceiving of a painting, he will be lying on the couch for many hours in a daze, surrounded by mountains of books, dolls, and scraps of paper from his massive collection of images that inspire him. Once he starts actually painting, though, he is in an amazingly wakeful, concentrated state of mind... He is totally paying attention to every tiny movement of his brush. Sometimes he says he feels like he is threading a needle all day long, poor thing. He is an amazing mixture of scientific precision and dreaminess, artist and businessman, young rebel and old man.”

One of Ryden’s most profound convictions is that we instinctively know that there is more to existence than the physical plane we can perceive with our five senses. He is fascinated by the idea that the world is an illusion like a diorama. This concept is subliminally present in all his paintings, in which mysterious scenarios play out in sharp relief against a misty landscape, as if set before a theatrical backdrop. On some level, this awareness of a greater context is at the root of the human impulse toward spirituality. Ryden believes that if we look backward, past the societal machinations of religion, we can sense a more fundamental source of meaning — the natural forces our ancestors interpreted as forest spirits and primordial gods, and wove into a rich tapestry of myth. That same reverent intimacy with the natural world is intrinsic to childhood, but as we enter adulthood, our connection with those elemental forces tends to fade away. While some of us remain aware of these natural conduits to the mysteries of the unconscious realms within us, those pathways are often occluded by the perpetual distractions of modern life. Yet the more we risk as a society — the delicate balance of nature, the freedom of childhood, the wonder of a world not fully understood — the more important it is for creative people to help us imagine what could be, and might have been.

Mythographer Joseph Campbell believed that the absence of religious ecstasy in modern life is what causes many of us to go off the rails and look into cults and drugs for the transcendent experience. One of the functions of mythology is to show us how to evolve into higher paths of thought and action, and ultimately to discover who we are and what course in life fulfills us. Though we live in an era where the idea of myth seems archaic, these universal stories are still springing up all around us in different guises — from urban myths to dream paintings, from science fiction movies to comic books. Many of the more visionary artists of today, whose minds are open to the sound of the universe, are continually conjuring new myths built upon the ephemera of our times — new traditions that respond to our environment, rather than that of some desert-dwelling nomadic tribe that disbanded thousands of years ago. Perhaps the most important function of the artist is to make mythology a living medium, enriching our perception of the world with new metaphors that reconnect us with the mysteries. In his finest work, Ryden transfigures the most clichéd artifacts of our culture into a modern mythology that rouses the wondering child within us and opens us to a greater empathy for all living things.

In our frenetic modern world, people often find themselves restless and lost, deprived of a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Our souls yearn for mystery and beauty, whether we seek their expression through nature, love, music or art. Imagination can act as a bridge toward all the things for which our hearts ache — the ineffable, the spiritual, the eternal. Consequently, the artist’s most exalted function is to hold open doors into the unknown to help us divine the elusive nature of who we really are, allowing those parts of us that are seeking transcendence to evolve. In this respect, the artist takes on a shamanic role, mediating between the physical and spiritual realms, fueling our passions and healing our weary souls. Asked if Mark Ryden feels this sense of mission, his wife Marion replied, “Though he definitely would not use the term ‘shaman’ about himself, I think Mark certainly has the sense that he wants to bring something into the world, something it is craving and yearning for — soul, beauty, hope, things like that. He has an amazing something, a magic which has this very pure and loving quality, a joy. Everyone who is around him can feel it. There is something there that touches everyone in a very mysterious and powerful way, and they fall in love.”