Masterpieces of Creepiness

Photographed by Jack GouldWhen it comes to edgy corpsiness, New York has neo-Victorian Thomas Woodruff to extol. Southern California, on the other hand, can crow about neo-Victorian Mark Ryden. In a cage match? Woodruff has a greater breadth of work (and far more completed paintings; Ryden's only done about 44), but Ryden has the added edge of painting nude and sensual prepubescent girls, which almost trumps Woodruff's dead babies.

Mark Ryden is among the hiperati's best-loved painters. I was first introduced to his work by slavish devotee Long Gone John of Sympathy for the Record Industry, and you don't get much hipper or -eratier than famous recluse Long Gone John. Ryden also happens to be showing his third major one-man exhibit right here at Grand Central Art Center—Cal State Fullerton's Santa Ana satellite, which art honcho Mike McGee has been filling with an ever-escalating roster of art and artists. McGee's coups have really been quite astounding—especially since they're usually (though not always) without that nauseating LA cooler-than-you artistitude. It's an attitude that can quite put one off one's lunch.

Mark Ryden is Courtney Love without the drugs, bitch fights or bad manners. Perhaps I'm oversimplifying his vision of childhood lost, wherein every creepy, big-eyed scene evokes equally a Keane painting and Hole's anguished, keening “Doll Parts”—without being either anguished or keening but rather delighting in decadent emotional necrophilia. Nah. I'm not.

Ryden's paintings are incredibly intricate absurdist/realist scenes, wherein children are immaculately still and sensual, reclining like Manet's Olympia. Always around them are their various sentient toys, acting as adoring courtiers in the children's small, otherwise lonely kingdoms.

While Ryden paints masterpieces of creepiness, I doubt he's much of a pessimist himself. His backgrounds in his works are gray and hideous, and bats and skulls are emblazoned across them, but even his figures who are “transitioning” are never alone or friendless—even though those friends don't necessarily breathe or speak or move. Jessica's Hope depicts a pink-maned girl in a wheeled chair drawn by a bunny. A burning candle and a clock intimate that her time is running down, but there's nothing maudlin or heart-string-tugging in the painting. The bunny carriage looks fun!

Darla's Journey is painted more realistically—if you consider dancing skeletons reading Baudelaire realistic. But most of Ryden's figures have giant heads atop teeny bodies, like Betty Boop, and in this one, Darla, who looks like Winona Ryder, actually has the proportions of a human woman. She rides, dressed in evening dress, in a Munsters-style car of skulls and bats. The coachman is a baby riding a giant beetle. Ryden's a slut for symbology; here, Darla's coach drives past scenery that incorporates all the world's religions like Babe 2: Pig in the City incorporated all the world's great cities. There's a lute and a winged statue of Victory, a stele or obelisk with ankhs and female and male symbols. A giant Buddha head like those blown up by the Taliban is nicely picturesque, while fuzzily, in the background, Christ dies on the cross. In other paintings, there are mysterious numbers or Abraham Lincoln juggling meat. You know: symbols.

The best of the show comes in the form of studies for larger paintings. It's there we first experience in pencil the Olympia-like child who will become Sophia's Mercurial Water. In the sketches, one is struck by the delicacy of the lines of the figure, her hand at her breast while she gazes from her bed at the viewer. She cuddles a stuffed elephant and a bunny.

The painting itself, though, is disappointing, despite its heart-shaped frame. Pale like an albino, Sophia is supposed to be “pure as snow,” but instead she just looks frigid and unappealing and dead. She just isn't as charming or inviting as the small sketch is. Also, the fact that in the larger painting, it's more obvious she's shooting an arc of “mercurial waters” from her small breast into the stuffed elephant's mouth is just kind of gross.

Gross or no, Mark Ryden's works are bizarre fairy tales—Grimm's, not the French version—where each room is its own parallel land. And they're lands you should revisit as often as possible.

“Bunnies and Bees” shows at Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233. Through Feb. 24. Open Tues., Wed. and Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Free.

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