Mark Ryden is king of the Pop Surrealism movement. He’s also like a modern-day Rumpelstiltskin, who spins everything he touches into gold. From print portfolios to 800,000 dollar oil paintings – if Mark builds it, buyers come. His paintings draw on childhood, numerology and Americana, and you’ll have seen his work without even realising. He did the album artwork for Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute and Scarling’s Sweet Heart Dealer. Here’s a tip: buy his book The Tree Show while you still can. Here’s an even better tip: get hold of a copy of the issue of Bizarre with this feature in because it’s destined to become a collector’s item.
Meanwhile, Marion Peck may or may not be part of Pop Surrealism, but she’s undeniably relevant as a contemporary painter. She’s been doing her own thing as an artist since childhood, and isn’t concerned with labels or genres – except as a source of juxtaposition within her work. Marion’s images play with the notion that there’s a thin line separating expensive fine art and worthless garage sale junk. Appropriately, her paintings have gained acceptance with alternative and elite art crowds and are in the collections of Danny Elfman (Tim Burton movie score composer) and cartoonist Gary Larson.
It was almost inevitable that these two artists, who were both professionally accomplished and mixed in similar circles, would meet. Comparisons between them were inevitable. When they eventually came face to face, admiration was mutual and sparks flew. Two mysterious individuals became an even more mysterious couple.
They consider themselves soul mates, and others consider them the reigning royal couple of the art world. Corny? Maybe. Bullshit? No. These two people belong together. Their art, passions, timid demeanours and flair for the theatrical simply click. Last year they even made a short film together, Sweet Wishes, which has been watched over 60,000 times on YouTube. (Scroll down to watch it)
Welcome to the world of Mark Ryden and Marion Peck, where the real and the surreal swirl together, and the line between fact and fiction blurs into oblivion.
THE MAGIC KINGDOM
On a tree-lined street on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the sun is shining and the happy sounds of birds and children are carried on a pleasant breeze. All the houses are colourfully painted, except one that features a pallet of harmonious greys. This is where Mark and Marion live and work, and it’s a perfect representation of their artistic sensibilities.
A peek through the front window reveals a tantalising glimpse of eclectic yet harmonious décor. Antique artefacts, elegant furniture, ornate fixtures, and decorative treasures too abundant to recall are all arranged with museum-quality precision. Unfortunately, the interior’s off-limits at the moment because a cleaning crew is making sure everything sparkles and shines to perfection. Not even Mark and Marion will go in until they’ve finished.
Is this intentional misdirection or an incidental detour? Has the friendly yet reclusive couple discovered that a cleaning service is the perfect method for allowing the media into their personal lives while keeping it out of their personal space? Or, as the view from the front porch suggests, do they just enjoy a thoroughly clean house?
This afternoon finds the temporarily homeless couple sitting at a quaint garden table in the centre of their hillside back garden. They’re surrounded by a Munchkinland-like series of buildings, including their main residence, two studios, and an old wooden shed that could easily be used as a location for any “teens get murdered while camping near lake” horror film. It looks like there’s an abandoned tree house some distance up the hill.
This is a tranquil spot; it’d be a great place for an Easter egg hunt. One of the greatest perks of financial success must be the freedom to find one’s dream home. One of the greatest perks of romantic success must be the happiness that comes from sharing one’s dreams. Mark and Marion enjoy these successes, and their environment reflects that joy.
Both artists are reminiscent of archetypal schoolteachers. Marion seems like a fun and nurturing humanities professor, while Mark is an eccentric member of the science department. Marion dresses in pretty clothes, and Mark’s appearance is an ever-changing combination of hairstyles and beards. In fact, Mark has sported looks as diverse as a turn of the century banker and a wild mountain man (who would’ve looked right at home in the shed in his backyard).
Marion describes Mark by saying, “He’s a genius, and the sweetest, kindest, nicest person in the world.” Mark says simply, “Marion is magic.” Both claim to be shy, but they’re open and warm at home.
THE PRINCE AND PRINCESS
To celebrate their togetherness, this artist super-couple have sex (more on that later) and find a project or two to collaborate on. “We created a painting together once, called ‘Star’” Mark explains. “We didn’t really enjoy the process very much.” So, for their next project, they made a short film called Sweet Wishes.
The movie’s an odd little two-minute tale that may seem underwhelming at first, given the artists’ pedigrees. Simple animation techniques are used to tell the story of two dolls and a teddy who meet a fairy and wish for a feast of cakes and sweets. Unbridled consumption ensues, followed by uncontrolled barfing. In the end, the three playmates are ready and eager to jump right in and do it all again... lesson not learned. The silent drama is played out against the demented 1950s song ‘And The Dish Ran Away With The Spoon’ by Raymond Scott and the Secret 7, with vocals by Dorothy Collins.
Marion came up with the idea for Sweet Wishes as part of her exhibition Soft Painting For Gentle People at the Billy Shire Gallery in Los Angeles, which featured soft focus paintings of wide-eyed children and animals drawn in a flat, Elizabethan style. Mark began working on the film as an assistant, but it soon turned into a full collaboration between the experimental artists. “Marion wanted to do something beyond painting,” says Mark. “In fact, we both wanted to do something beyond painting. Painting can actually get quite boring…”
The two even created a cabinet-sized doll theatre to show the film, so guests had to peer inside. The idea was a long time in the making, but the project happened quickly. “Marion had been kicking the concept around in her head for many months,” says Mark. “The actual piece was created right before her exhibition so there was a lot of time pressure. This is the kind of pressure that often leads to more creativity and energy. From the initial days of shopping for sweets, to the finishing touches on the theatre, the process took several weeks.”
The film was made into a picture book, and included as a DVD in a special limited edition of it. But they wanted more people to see it, so they put it on YouTube. After the exhibition, the two also spruced up the theatre, which became an exhibit in its own right. “With a touch of a button on the side of the theatre, the house lights come on, the projector revs up, the lights dim and the film begins,” explains Mark. “The theatre was on view at a Museum Of Contemporary Art event in Los Angeles last fall.”
HAPPILY EVER AFTER
Like much of their work, Sweet Wishes looks light-hearted – but it’s dark. Children illustrate a cycle of gleeful overindulgence, unpleasant consequences and an ironically enthusiastic return to excess. It’s about desire, and the couple are quick to admit, “Desire rules us throughout our lives.”
Asked about their own vices, they offer a simple list: “Drinking, eating, and fornicating. We like to go out for Mexican food and eat until stuffed, have many Margaritas, come home, fuck, and pass out.” Now that’s what good collaboration is all about.
The couple take a historical view of overindulgence by quoting the writing of Roman courtier Petronius: “Moderation in all things, including moderation”. And moderation isn’t part of their work ethic. Each have large, detailed works on their easels that represent days on end of painstaking concentration.
Details of the paintings are top secret, but they are absolutely breathtaking. Mark’s is enormous and exhibits his profound gift for surreal design, not only in character and composition but in women’s fashion. Marion’s piece is as funny as it is disturbing, and causes us to wonder which unlucky bastard inspired its central figure.
Mark and Marion will continue painting just as assuredly as they’ll continue to eat and drink, and hopefully they’ll continue collaborating just as assuredly as they’ll continue fucking. Both artists share a sense of showmanship to rival PT Barnum, but their careers so far have only hinted at the scope of their ideas. Sweet Wishes is a preview of the smorgasbord of treats they have in store.
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