Artful Jesters, Notes from a dark comedy

Artful Jesters

Nicholas Roukes, 2000

“I have always felt like an observer. That’s probably why being an artist is so appealing to me.”

-Mark Bryan

Possessing the intense, irrational reality of a dream, Mark Bryan’s intuitively created images evoke disturbing emotions which are curiously tempered by a comic quality. Like all images which derive from the subconscious they are ambiguous; yet even with their incongruous nature, they hint at deep underlying thoughts and anxieties.

Tower, for example, is a surreal image that shows a lightning bolt striking and demolishing a monumental edifice. In the foreground one sees a jester, fleeing the devastation on a unicycle. Although the image carries an obvious reference to Pieter Brueghel’s Tower of Babel (1563), it entreats the viewer to ponder its recontextualized composition as a contemporary metaphor.

Bryan, commenting on the painting, says, “When I first thought about the fool on the unicycle riding away from the disaster area, I realized that the tower is a symbol of man’s pride and self -importance, and that the lightning bolt is reality asserting itself.”

Psychologists say dreams are filled with metaphors, and metaphors represent a “crossing over” of potent thoughts from unconscious to conscious levels of understanding. Bryan’s paintings underscore the fact that an extraordinary synthesis can occur when the magical world of the artist’s dream world is transfused into the equally magical world of pictorial reality which in concert, stimulates the mind of the viewer and evolves yet another magical world of subjective reality.

From the metaphoric perspective, Bryan’s work elicits multiple interpretations. The Destroyed Tower can be read as the annihilation of stereotypes and antiquated belief systems by updated, contemporary beliefs. The “fool” is perhaps a “wise fool” who has possibly gained new insights, and therefore wastes no time in distancing himself from the asphyxiating tenets of outdated dogma.

In “Roberto and the Metal Man,” Bryan again employs the archetype image of the fool, this time on stilts , and seemingly on a road to nowhere, with an obedient robot following close behind. “The meaning of this image is still obtuse,” says Bryan, “a man on stilts is a loaded symbol. He’s up in the air, vulnerable, and it takes a lot of skill and courage to do this, and the consequences of failure are great.”

Sigmund Freud once described dreams as the “royal road to the unconscious,” an activity where conscious criticism is abrogated while the irrational mind plays, and fantasizes. Carl Jung, writes in The Active Imagination, that the creative process consists of the unconscious activation of an archetype image which is shaped into a finished work. “By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present and in doing so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.”

If Looks Could Kill can be read as a metaphor of human conflict , an image of warfare that has been played out throughout history. However, it also alludes to some temporary domestic misunderstandings in the artist’s life. “My wife and I were coming out of a rough patch at the time I painted this picture. Notice that even the food in this painting is engaged in warfare.”

Fiddling With Swords is a depiction of a zany comic procession with dark cynical overtones. Here, a tiny fool, brandishing a sword is shown leading a massive army towards an apparent mission of destruction. Another fool is shown astride a gigantic bomb, playing a violin with his sword. “It’s the music of war.” says Bryan, “It’s played to mesmerize the loyal followers who believe they’re soldiering on a mission for the good of their country, but in reality is about enriching the personal coffers and inflated egos of war mongers.”

Humorologist C.W. Metcalf says humor and laughter do not exist in the absence of sorrow and tears, but co-exist as a balance of sanity. Bryan’s iconography, loaded as it is with multiple inferences, has the potential to make us laugh and also think about the frivolities and stupidities committed by so-called “enlightened” human beings . “Sometimes while I’m sketching,” says Bryan, “I often feel like I’m taking notes at a dark comedy, but the play never ends, and I can’t go home.”

Mark Bryan was born in 1950 in Huntington Park, California. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California.
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1. Mark Bryan, memos to Nicholas Roukes, 2000

2. C.J . Jung, Jung on Active Imagination (edited by Joan Chodorow, Princetown University Press, 1997)

Artful Jesters, Notes from a dark comedy – Art of Mark Bryan