For artist Mark Bryan, humour and satire provide the possibilities of maintaining, and more often than not, amplifying the interest and intrigue of his audience, even when the messages he presents are somewhat unpalatable or disturbing. A veteran of the art world, Bryan has long since viewed visual art as a means of exposing the worlds wrongdoers and contributing to positive social change. Alongside his political works, Mark also creates imagery which stems from significantly more unconscious origins, and which draw just as heavily, on the melange of 1950’s and ’60’s low budget sci-fi, psychedelic comics and surrealist works he was influenced by throughout his youth. Regardless of which of these two distinct camps his work falls into, there are some things which are absolutely certain; Bryan’s work is unquestionably his own, it is crafted with the utmost sincerity and unequivocally wrapped in an indubitable honesty.
Mark Bryan is an American painter. He was born in 1950 and was raised in the middle class suburbs of Los Angeles County. Leaving Los Angeles in 1968, Bryan studied architecture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, after which he returned to Los Angeles in 1970 to begin studying at the Otis Art Institute, gaining his BFA in ’72 and completing his MFA by ’74. Becoming a carpenter and builder upon leaving college, Mark returned to painting in 1990 and has worked as a professional artist ever since. His works have been exhibited extensively, both within his home country and abroad.
WOW x WOW recently asked Mark if he would answer a few of our questions. He was not only gracious enough to agree, but went on provide the tremendous insight into his working life that you’ll find in the interview below.
Hi Mark! First of all, thanks for agreeing to free up some of your valuable time in order to have this wee chat, we really appreciate it. If you could please start us off by introducing yourself and talking about your background, touching on anything you feel has been relevant to shaping Mark Bryan the artist?
I was born in Southern California in 1950. I know………that was a long time ago. Growing up during the fifties and sixties were challenging and interesting times for sure. The Cold War/Red Scare was omnipresent. Duck and Cover was the mantra of the day. The filthy Russians wanted us dead. I remember clearly during the Cuban Missile Crisis my mother telling me that if I ever saw a real bright flash of light, I should get down low behind something, wait till the blast went by, and then come straight home. Even at that young age, I doubted this was going to work. I’m sure this atmosphere contributed to the overall sense of anxiety and doom that often appears in my work.
As I moved into my college years, the Vietnam War was in full swing and the military draft was also in force. The possibility of being forced to kill or be killed for a dubious cause had a way of focusing one’s attention on politics. This was also the time of the civil rights movement, assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. The whole hippie/psychedelic/eastern religion phenomenon was at its zenith as well. We truly believed the world could and should be changed. It was a strange mix of optimism and horror. Those events have stayed with me all these years and continually surface in my paintings. My political work, I suppose, is an attempt to deal with these early realizations and make comment on the unpleasant realities of this world. As Lenin once said “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
We’re interested to hear about where you’re currently living and what you like about the area? What is the art scene like there and do you feel a part of that community?
I live on the Central coast of California near San Luis Obispo, not very far from the ocean. We moved up here 40 years ago to get out of Los Angeles. I built my own home a few miles out of town. It started out a bit of a funky hippie dream but has evolved over the years. Later I built a small art studio supported on poles in the midst of some oak trees. It is a beautiful and peaceful place to work. I feel lucky every day. This area has great natural beauty and is still relatively unspoiled. I have two children and now four grandchildren. It is a terrific place to raise a family and the surfing is not too shabby either.
The upsides to living here have been well worth it to me even though it has been much harder as an artist to advance my career living so far from urban centers and all the action. I think the importance of personal connections cannot be overstated and those are hard to create at a distance. As a result, it’s taken quite a while for my work to become known. An artist friend of mine and I joke that we are the world’s oldest emerging artists.
The art scene around here was very provincial and conservative, mostly tourist stuff of landscapes, seascapes and flowers, not something that I fit in with very well, but things are changing and getting interesting as more artist refugees arrive from LA and San Francisco.
In what ways did your childhood and upbringing affect your relationship with the arts?
I was a super shy person as a child. I always had a few good friends but overall felt socially removed and detached from the other kids. Because of that I suppose I spent a lot of time reading and inside my own head. Certainly that helped to develop my imagination. I always liked to draw and for whatever reasons seemed to be better at it than most of my peers. I remember getting much needed positive attention during the ‘art hour’ sessions at school. I was the go to guy when someone wanted help drawing a bunny or sailing ship. I soon became known as the ‘artist’ in class. This definitely raised my status and confidence. I’ve gone with it ever since.
My early artistic awareness came from superhero comics, science fiction illustration, Big Daddy Roth hot rods, Mad Magazine, The Twilight Zone and cheesy sci-fi and horror flicks. When I was around ten I discovered Salvador Dalí. I had a huge book of his work which I studied very carefully and even tried to copy some of the paintings. He was my art God for a while. I’m still trying to shake him. Later, R. Crumb and the whole Zap Comix gang came into play. Their humor and psychedelic bizarreness were right in tune with my taste. People sometimes comment on the retro look of my work. This look is not really surprising or affected since I actually lived through those days first hand.
You have often stated that your work falls into two distinct categories; your satirical works of social, political and religious comment on the one hand, and works which take an inward track to the imagination and subconscious on the other. Do you still have the same motivation to tackle the political themes now, as your younger self did?
A lot of people think that I am primarily a political artist since that type of work seems to garner the most attention, but really I have always preferred to explore the world of imagination because of its unlimited nature. In the last few years my inward work has been much more compelling to me and I expect it will continue that way going forward. However, like it or not, I am a part of this world and can’t always stay inside my head and ignore what’s going on. Political art is propaganda and opinion. We all push for what we believe in and against what we fear. When the circus turns especially ugly, I feel the need and responsibility to make some kind of comment. Sometimes, it’s just too easy. Many political characters are already walking cartoons and almost paint themselves. So how can one resist? Since these characters come and go, this type of work does unfortunately have a shelf life. Because of that I have been moving towards making more general comments about human nature and the predicaments we place ourselves in. Those things seem to never change.
Your recent Donald Trump inspired painting ‘Trump-O-Matic’ has received some pretty serious attention on Facebook. Tell us a little about the image and the response the image has generated?
Yes it has. Every once in awhile an image hits all the right notes and resonates with a lot of folks. I’ve received some great comments and thanks for making a picture which spells out the way so many people feel about him. The ‘Trump-O-Matic’ depicts a baby Trump ringmaster standing behind and operating his new Trump-O-Matic machine for a huge crowd. The machine is a large mechanical Trump automaton. On its back are many buttons and levers such as Hate, Fear, Lie, Brag and Bully. Baby Trump needs only to push these buttons and the machine does all the work. He loves it since this allows him to admire himself in a mirror uninterrupted. Meanwhile he is standing on his platform which is really a jail full of Mexicans and Muslims. They are trying to unplug the Trump-O-Matic but have not succeeded yet.
Sticking with your political works for a moment longer, how important has it been for you to make these works accessible, given the fact that you are delivering definite messages? Have you taken any particular steps to ensure that your messages hit home?
Illustrative art is story telling with pictures. Of course in political art the idea and the symbols used to tell this story need to be clear to make an effective statement. The wonderful thing about a picture is that it really can be worth a thousand words. I believe a well made image can have much more power than someone laying out the same idea verbally. Visual impact can be instant or lead the viewer slowly through the picture to discover it’s whole meaning. I believe including humor and satire into the work is the most effective way to get a message across. It rewards the viewer with a surprise and a laugh at the expense of the target. Making fun of the villains is always satisfying. It is a way of hitting back.
At the heart of all your work appears to lie a deep exploration into the human condition. Would you agree, and if so, has venturing into these territories allowed you to make any remarkable self-discoveries that you’d be willing to share with us?
Behind all of our experience in this world is a great mystery that begs the questions, what are we and what is this reality that we find ourselves in? Religion has always attempted to deal with these questions by offering us explanations of how the universe works, giving us a role and purpose and comforting us that death can be cheated if we only behave in a certain fashion. That’s well and good and maybe serves us overall, but ultimately I don’t really think these questions are answerable. It’s not easy not knowing. As I’ve gotten older I feel like I know less and less about what’s going on but I’m becoming much more comfortable without a grand belief system to explain it all. I try to make being in the present moment paramount. To be alive at all is a wonder no matter how long it lasts. I intend to pay attention, take it as it is and appreciate it as much as possible.
Talk to us a little about the more dreamlike images you create, the ones which are more or less served up to you directly from your subconscious. These pieces are rich in symbolism and open to a wide variety of interpretations. Do these pieces always have a distinct meaning for you personally, or do your own interpretations of these works change with time. Have there been any memorable examples of this?
The works from my imagination are the most fun to create. Painting them is an adventure with an unknown destination. I do start with an idea or picture in my head. Where these images come from is another mystery. They just seem to appear all at once. From this starting point anything can happen and often does. They almost never end up as originally imagined. I try to stay open to whatever pops up and be willing to change what is not working, even if I spent a week on it. Like dreaming while awake, one image leads to another with unpredictable results. And like dreams, they have their own strange logic that suggests a meaning. When they are finished I have a feeling of what they are about and what the symbolism represents to me, however there are some works, just like some dreams, which leave me mystified. I believe symbolism is so appealing because it allows the viewer to project his or her own story and meaning into the picture and since it is a visual riddle, it always remains intriguing.
What do you feel is the most essential factor an artist must be open to, regarding the evolution of their practice? Having had a lengthy and successful career so far, how have you seen your own work evolve over time?
To learn anything, especially traditional painting, motivation and practice are required. In my opinion there is no way around this fact. They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a craft. That sounds about right to me. Is inherent talent a real thing? Maybe, but without matching it with work, it cannot be realized. I feel lucky to find painting endlessly intriguing and motivating. I have been learning continually for years and feel that there really is no end to what can be learned. Naturally, technical ability improves over time but also with life experience the content of the work should evolve as well. I’ve never felt that my technical skill was particularly great, but generally good enough to tell a story effectively. Depending on what is said, even two stick figures talking can be more interesting than a beautifully rendered painting.
What is your relationship with the history of art and do you feel that it is important to have a good understanding of what has come before? Can you talk about some of the artists from the past who have inspired you and then bring it up to date with some of your contemporary favourites?
Whether we realize it or not, we are all products of the past. We did not arrive here with all this stuff instantaneously. Knowledge of how it all came about is sadly optional. In regards to art, I am no historian. I have learned some things about artists from the past that I am attracted to, but mostly I just look at their work and go from there. Thanks to Google images that has become much easier. Art from the past can teach and inspire, but also intimidate and discourage. “I can never match their ability”. “It’s all been done before and better”. These are some of the insecurities that run through my head while looking at past masterpieces. The only answer I have to that is they are not alive now to record and reflect on our particular slice of history. That is left up to us.
There are many artists and movements from the past which I have been inspired by. The list is really too long, so I will mention the favorites that come to mind. For political content: Goya, Daumier, Thomas Nast, Otto Dix, George Tooker and the Mexican muralists. For beauty: Turner, John Martin, The Hudson River School, the Symbolist and Romantic movements. The surrealists: Dalí, Magritte and especially Max Ernst. American scene painters: Edward Hopper, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Illustration: Gustave Doré and N.C. Wyeth.
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, possibly one who’s memory you find yourself returning to for inspiration, or maybe just a tale about a hardship you’ve overcome which has helped define the person and therefore artist that you are now?
I cannot think of a particular story which has had a great impact. It’s more of a feeling that has developed over time and through many experiences. A sense of wonder over the whole phenomena of our existence and this huge universe we find ourselves in. This grand feeling contrasts starkly with the mundane struggles of everyday life and the suffering which we continually make for ourselves on a global scale. This dichotomy provides endless material for an artist to work with.
If you could own one piece of art from any of the world’s collections what would it be and why?
Wow, that’s a difficult choice. I could name a hundred, but at the moment I’m working on a Tower of Babel inspired piece, so right now I would choose Bruegel’s famous rendition of that story. The futility of trying to reach the heavens by material means and man’s enterprise and hubris brought down by an intervention from “God” seems a perfect metaphor for the predicament we find ourselves in today. I choose to see God in this story symbolized as the laws of nature. Relying solely on technology to somehow rescue us from the destruction of our environment seems unlikely and ironic.
What’s next for Mark Bryan?
I expect to continue focusing more and more on my inward explorations. That direction is the most compelling for me at this time. Also, I’m beginning to feel like I have said all I have to say about the outside world and am just repeating myself in different ways. That said, I never make a definite plan to follow when it comes to my art. I try to keep it open and do what seems to be the right choice as it arrives.