Today one of my soon-to-be students for my Spring quarter course called “Strange Children” mentioned that the course description reminded her of Mark Ryden‘s art. I, of course, looked into his work directly.
Indeed, Ryden’s oeuvre is almost entirely dedicated to depictions of children — mostly prepubescent girls — and nature. The children are grotesque with large comical eyes and predominantly pale skin (except for one rare portrayal of the face of a Black girl in wood), and appear in natural settings, often alongside flora and/or fauna.
Ryden’s skillful lowbrow art problematizes the child-body in nature.
The natural child seems…extremely unnatural.
But the aspect of Ryden’s work that tugged on me most aggressively was his integration of children — particularly prepubescent, white girls — and meat. His “The Gay ’90s” portfolio seems to piggy-back on his earlier “The Meat Show” works in which slabs of meat — primarily fat rib-eyes — connote a kind of religiosity. For example, in “The Meat Show” works, Christic imagery pervades and the slabs of meat are positioned as a form of religious nourishment. The meat often seems too large to be functional as sustenance, yet it seems intended to be more decorative than functional (see The Angel of Meat, for example).
In “The Gay 90s,” however, Ryden pushes the meat and religious imagery further, depicting semi-born babies in their embryonic sacs as types of meat (see Virgin and Child), or depicting girls in dresses of meat.
Tellingly, no girls are ever eating meat or cooking meat. Meat may appear on the table — as it does in The Grinder — but meat seems a form of garb, even an expression of a way of being (see Inside Sue).
Meat is what these girls display and yet it is also what is inside of them. They are meat.
In his book Meat, Nick Fiddes argues that the consumption of meats and the human desire to control meat production relates to our desire to control the natural world. Do Ryden’s white meat girls suggest a certain degree of control enforced in the world around them?
I think so. I think that is precisely the function of meat in Ryden’s work. Whoever displays the meat, has the authority or power; and meat is what little girls are made of.