Insert Jesus into an oeuvre that regularly features wide-eyed fairytale femmes, Abraham Lincoln, and raw meat, and you’ve got yourself a Mark Ryden painting. This guy’s work, kooky to the utmost, is exhibited worldwide and sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars (his collectors include Stephen King, Ringo Starr, and formerly Michael Jackson). His art belongs to what is (affectionately, not disparagingly) called the Lowbrow movement, or Pop Surrealism.
The Piano Player was created for a solo exhibition that ran last year at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, called “The Gay 90’s: Old Tyme Art Show”—“90’s” being a reference to the 1890s, and “Gay” to the idealism of that decade. Ryden said that he wanted his work for the show to address the role of kitsch and nostalgia in our current culture. “In the modern era, sentimentality and beauty have been disdained in the art world,” he said. “This new work explores the line between attraction and repulsion to kitsch, and between beauty and banality.”
What is your immediate reaction to the above two pieces? Is Jesus’s guest appearance in Ryden’s fantastical world attractive or repulsive to you? Beautiful, or banal?
Ryden has said, in reference to this and other works, that his characters don’t necessarily symbolize anything, but that that doesn’t mean they are meaningless: “People have the idea that an image must ‘stand for’ something else, that the ‘real’ meaning needs to be described with language. Instead it is the image itself that is the meaning.” He only wants his paintings to evoke wonder and curiosity, he said, which is why we need not read too much into them.
So, look on. Be transported. React thoughtlessly (first impressions count); observe, but don’t analyze. And then continue on your merry way.