Cámara de las maravillas,
CAC Málaga, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo of Málaga
16 December 2016 – 5 March 2017
Visited: 28th February 2017
While on holiday I visited the Mark Ryden exhibition, Cámara de las maravillas, at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Malaga. Prior to the visit I had read a little about the artist on the gallery website and on the artist’s own website. Beyond that I had never seen his work before.
In a separate post, I look at Lowbrow or Pop Surrealist art, the movement that Mark Ryden has become associated with. In this post, I concentrate on my visit to the gallery, my observations and subsequent research.
The Centro de Arte Contemporáneo of Málaga is a bright, spacious gallery. The exhibition, translated as Chamber of Wonders brought together 55 works in a range of media. Paintings were interspersed with porcelain figures and a bronze sculpture. Some of the porcelain figures were in small glass cases while the centrepiece was a large wooden figure, with a dress comprised of cuts of meat. A collection of smaller paintings was grouped together on one wall above a glass case with additional smaller paintings giving the impression of a cabinet of curiosities
My initial impression on walking round was of recurring motifs and themes in the exhibits. These included Abraham Lincoln, children, meat, body parts, bees, eyes, trees, foetuses and babies. A number of families were going around the exhibition and it was interesting to see how close both adults and children wanted to get to the exhibits. There was a fairy tale quality of something which is shiny, glossy and alluring on the surface, something that draws you in, and then is not what it seems.
As I went around the exhibition I tried to think of possible influences including medieval paintings, the symbolism of objects in 17th century Dutch Art, angels and cherubs from Renaissance art and fairy tales. There are lots of eyes hidden in the paintings, among the trees or in a brooch, giving a secretive, watchful quality. Figures are cartoon-like reminiscent of Disney characters and Manga Art. Female subjects tend to have inflated faces, large eyes and hands. The paintings have a porcelain quality with bright, pure colours and enamel-like surfaces. The effect makes you want to touch them while, paradoxically, keeping you at a distance.
I had a sense that the artist has a cast of characters but it was hard to work out what role they were playing. As I looked at some of the distorted figures it was as if they were in collusion, but with whom, the artist or the viewer?
Three exhibits drew my attention for different reasons.
Cernunnos #67, 2006 [External Link]
Height: 243.8 cm x 121.9 cm
This is a baby doll encased in a carved tree. It has that fairy tale quality of a tree that would be found in an ancient forest and which has magical powers. The doll wears what looks like a gold lace christening gown. On the head are small antlers. In the left-hand is a gold bracelet and in the right-hand a lizard-like creature. Above the space that encloses the doll, part of the tree, is an eye observing the viewer.
Further research, after the exhibition, showed that Cernunnos, the ‘Horned One’, is a powerful deity from the Celtic religion. His attributes of stag antlers, a ram-horned serpent and a torque are referenced by Ryden in the antlers, the lizard-like creature and the gold bracelet.
The doll reminded me of Tiny Tears, from my childhood. That in turn reminded me of work by Shani Rhys-James. Not because of any obvious correlation of style or media but because Rhys-James uses motifs such as cots, Punch and Judy theatres, mannequins and dolls and her paintings have an unsettling quality. Ryden too uses a range of objects that reappear consistently in his work but my impression was that he seems to be curating an effect with random objects placed together while Rhys-James explores more authentic influences from her childhood.
Self-portrait as a Dodecahedron, 2015 [External Link]
103cm x 135 cm x 135 cm
This large bronze dodecahedron contains a number of the familiar motifs including the child with antlers (Cernunnos), a tree, meat, a bee, Chinese characters, a bear with enlarged eyes, a foetus, and Lincoln.
On the top of the sculpture is the Yin/Yang symbol, encircled by signs of the zodiac and, in decreasing circles, are small including coins, a mask, lotus flower, clasped hands, a book, a skull, heart, a house and a telephone.
I was interested in the idea of this as a self-portrait as it reminded me of research that I had undertaken on medieval art. At the time, there was debate about what images could be represented in a religious setting. One of the responses to this was to have more idealised figures whose individuality would be represented by inscriptions, attributes or coats of arms.
Ryden seems to play with this idea. The planes of the dodecahedron show items that are meaningful to him. In displaying the various objects and symbols you could argue that he is laying himself bare, but that seeming transparency is deceptive as the dodecahedron, like humans, has the ability to show many faces.
Wood Meat Dress, 2016 [External Link]
2.44 metres x 91.5 cm
This large sculpture of a female dressed in a crinoline-style dress made of meat was the centrepiece of the exhibition. Initially, not having seen the title, I thought the figure was porcelain realising only later that it was made from wood. The exhibit brings together two subjects of significance to Ryden, meat and trees. Meat is not just that which we consume but also our own bodies. In this exhibit, he was drawing a parallel with meat being animals that were once alive and objects made from trees which were also once alive. This exhibit was designed especially for the exhibition taking inspiration from the Spanish tradition of polychrome wood sculptures.
All-in-all this was a fascinating exhibition. I had little prior knowledge of the artist and, if I had, would have been inclined to think that it was not going to be something that would interest me. However, during and after the exhibition I found connections with other research I have undertaken, such as religious art, icons and polychrome figures.
I did find that the sheer volume of references risked becoming overwhelming. At times I felt that some of the work was too calculated, designed to create an unsettled response in the viewer but to what end?
Lowbrow Art and Pop Surrealism – https://katespainting2.wordpress.com/2017/06/23/lowbrow-art-and-pop-surrealism/
Ryden, M. (2006) Cernunnos [Mixed media] At: http://markryden.com/paintings/treeshow/cernnunos.html (Accessed on 08.06.17)
Ryden, M. (2015) Self-portrait as a Dodecahedron [Sculpture] At: http://markryden.com/paintings/dodecahedron/dodecahedron.html (Accessed on 08.06.17)
Mark Ryden trabajando en la obra Wood Meat Dress CAC Malaga (2016) 2.47 mins At: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97b-yS6RfCE (Accessed on 08.06.17)
Britannica (2007) ‘Cernunnos’ definition [online] At: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Cernunnos (Accessed on 08.06.17)
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo of Málaga (2016) Mark Ryden: Cámara de las maravillas. At: http://cacmalaga.eu/2016/12/16/mark-ryden-4/ (Accessed on 08.06.17)
Mazelis, J. (2015) ‘In Conversation with Shani Rhys James’ In: walesartreview.org 08.05.15 [online] At: http://www.walesartsreview.org/in-conversation-with-shani-rhys-james/ (Accessed 08.06.17)