On May 20th, the online arts mag Hyperallergic reported that members of the Virginia Arts Commission threatened to defund the Virginia Museum of Contemporary art for showing the work of “anti-Christian” artist Mark Ryden. We can easily debate whether secular funding organizations should be able to pull support from public arts organizations on religious pretexts; artists, supporters, and cultural organizations have done this repeatedly with no clear conclusion. I am more interested in exploring whether his work is actually anti-Catholic, or using established visual language to question contemporary life, and the American tradition of using religion to justify our position.
If you read any of the essays on Ryden’s work, his interest in absurdities that exist (or created) in not only imagery, but American politics and popular culture are well documented. In 2001, Carlo McCormick wrote,
Force fed on the obsessive compulsive diet of carnal indulgence and candy-coated junk that is America's great contribution to the history of bad taste, Mark Ryden expels it all from the gut, giving gastric voice to the soft-white underbelly of our manic materialism, and heaving forth the bile and the beauty of our frothy fantasies back into the great vomitorium of popular culture. And make no mistake about it, this is a thoroughly American form of art-making.(At Play in the Slaughterhouse of American Pop, 2001)
In other words, Ryden’s dark, pretty-yet eerie, symbolically-laden artwork is not only sublime, but distinctly American, and an adept reflection back on the culture we produce.
Ryden’s painting Rosie’s Tea Party, 2005 (the painting that raised the ire of members of the Virginia Arts Commision) is an embodiment of these ideas. The painting’s protagonist, little Rosie is joined by America’s favorite doll, Barbie; her stuffed bunny; a perfect white kitten and rosy baby (all of our favorite girlie things!) in a well-appointed pink and white room during tea time. A petite Abraham Lincoln (America’s symbol of morality) is also in attendance, joining the party that is reminded to “be good.” Clad in a pink suit and signature tall hat, he seems to be enjoying the event.
If that were the summation of the painting, the concerned Virginia Arts Commissioners would have never raised concern. Pretend tea parties are the things of well-raised little girls. Something, however is awry in Ryden’s vision of tea and cookies. Instead of tea, the happy attendees are drinking wine (or blood) as suggested by the wine bottle on the table with the image of Jesus and the words “Sangus Christi” on the saucer of the largest teacup. Rosie is serving ham at this event, inscribed with the words “Mystici Corporis Christi” which is a reference to the body of Christ. This allegory of Communion, and the presence of the white rats near the cut ham has been deemed as anti-Catholic and the center of this debate regarding funding museums and exhibitions deemed anti-Christian.
On the surface, this painting may read as anti-Christian. We can, however question such literal translation of the work. We know that Ryden borrows visual and conceptual ideas from traditional or Old Master paintings. Flemish and Dutch painters including and Pieter Aertsen (Butcher’s Stall with Flight into Egypt, 1551) and Rembrandt (Carcass of Beef, 1655) operate within the established Dutch Mannerist tradition of creating secular scenes laden with symbols that engage the audience in political, social, and moral conversations simultaneously. In these images, meat has taken center stage framing a dialogue on the sacrifice of Christ; our morality and social norms; obligation to resist gluttony; as well as the political battle between city government and business (Aertsen’s painting makes visual mention of the battle between Antwerp and the Butcher’s Guild).
Within Christian symbology, the rat is considered evil – primarily because of its association with the plague. Critics of the painting have stated that the rats are being fed the “body of Christ” and see this as a second example of Ryden’s anti-Christian position. If we look at the rats, however they are not only white (a symbol of intelligence, wisdom and resourcefulness) but they aren’t actually eating the meat. Instead, they are looking at the viewer, appearing curious versus interested in consuming the meal placed before them.
My experience of Rosie’s Tea Party – Ryden is challenging our popular definition of femininity and pretexts used for that indoctrination. Nothing could be more “girly.” Our acceptance of this perspective is the act of taking communion – that moment where we affirm our belief through the consumption of the canonized symbol of our faith and belief. It is only made disturbing by the organized carnality of it all.
Good art is never monolithic. Is Ryden criticizing Christianity? Possibly. Is using well-established visual language to foster a dialogue around challenging social norms anti-Catholic? Not so sure.