Mark Ryden’s The Gay 90’s

Mark Ryden has had a couple of books published recently but two different publishers. While one appeared to cover more ground chronologically, the other was based around an individual body of work and included a full version of an essay by an art writer that I have the utmost respect for; Amanda Erlanson. For these reasons – as well as having the most adorable cover – I chose the latter book to get hold of. Mark Ryden chose to use the era known as The Gay 90’s to form a body of work dating from 2010 onward. This psudo-idyllic decade following 1890 was not all it was made out to be years after it actually happened and Ryden has used the artistically poor taste of the time as the catalyst for this particular body of work. Here are my thoughts on this sumptuous book.

The Gay 90’s is published by Rizolli and the first thing of note – once you peel back the opaque front page with the book’s title – is the double page spread showing Mark Ryden, looking quite dapper, in his studio-space. Being fascinated by artistic process, I hunt down images of art-spaces but I have ever seen one like this before. Ryden works inside a giant cabinet of curios. It’s almost like he’s a miniature in there himself. Instead of a nest of tiny boxes, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf spans the full breadth of the large room. Inside are collections of esoteric books, busts, toys, dolls, anatomical models and other crazy looking sculptures. Countless paintings adorn the other walls and in front of one fa├žade is the easel. One of my favourite pieces looks like it’s being worked on with a halo of reference paintings and photos. It’s obviously more than just a studio-space… it’s a place of inspiration in itself and it’s great to see an insight into how such an important artist works.

As any of you who already know, Ryden’s work art is instantly recognisable. His characters – many of whom are reoccurring (Jesus Christ & Abraham Lincoln) – are the perfect mix of cartoon and realism. In fact, I can’t think of an artist that can do this better than him. You know that these images are made of canvas, wood and paint and that the scenes are like something from a dream… false but at the same time faultless. This is sometimes given away by tiny shifts in scale and, at other times, the surreal focus of the images themselves. Even at their most surreal, they are always grounded in some kind of believability.

Not only does this title faithfully portray about 60 of Ryden’s unique works (as you would hope a book like this to do) it also allows the viewer to delve deeper into his technique with the aid of preparatory sketches. You can see how ideas are layered and decisions are in the process of being made. It’s easy to imagine that paintings as perfect as these just land on a canvas by Ryden’s hand so it’s nice to see the human aspect of it. I even noted a piece that must have been directly influenced by one of Jacques Pierre Maygrier’s pieces in there. It’s good to see that even geniuses don’t live in an artistic vacuum and are effected by those that came before them.

And then there’s that essay I mentioned earlier by Amanda Erlanson. Let’s keep it short and just say that it’s the best introduction to a book that I’ve ever read. She has a wonderful way with words and has managed to tell a story at the same time as a history lesson and some philosophy and mythology mixed in there too. Perfect! I shouldn’t neglect to mention Anthony Haden Guest’s into too; another fine piece of writing that really sets the tone for the book.

All in all, it’s a wonderful book for any art book collector or fan of Ryden’s work. The Gay 90’s weighs in at 128 beautifully surreal pages and can be purchased direct from Rizzoli and from all the usual places, including Amazon UK.