The Art of Mark Bryan Juxtapoz interview
By John Gunnin, Jan. 2007
“Mark Twain and I are in very much the same position. We have put things in such a way as to make people who would otherwise hang us, believe that we are joking.”
–George Bernard Shaw
A few miles outside the central California town of San Luis Obispo, artist Mark Bryan lives on an oak-shrouded hillside. His studio is behind the home in a bungalow cabin that’s raised up on poles like a tree house. An expansive view unfolds to the south, in violation of the northern light preference of most painters. Bryan voted for the view and the sunlight as balms for his state of refuge from which he contemplates his work and the wild world. Here’s what he recently had to say:
How did you get started with art?
As a child, I liked to paint war scenes and pirate ships. I still do. I was shy and insecure, but I was better at drawing than others, so it became a way to get a little attention. The girls in my class would come to me and say, “Can you paint a bunny for me?” and that was great. From then on I could see how being an artist could pay off. Evolutionary biologists would say that most of our motivation is rooted in a desire to get more sex. That sounds plausible to me.
I always had a dark sense about things and I think art was also a way for me to work out some of that stuff. I had a stuffed dead guy hanging in my room for a while. Once I made a fake time bomb with dynamite sticks and a real clock that you could wind up. I liked to put it under my bed at night and listen to it tick until I went to sleep. It seemed cool at the time but now I wonder.
What was it like growing up in Southern California in the 50’s?
We lived in white suburbia about five miles from where they made the moon rockets. My father had his own business, first making paint and then owning a decorating store. My mom did the bookkeeping and raised the kids. I have one older brother who now runs the business my father started. I was not cut out for that and went my own way to study architecture and then art. We went to the beach a lot, my only real contact with nature. Overall I was pretty lucky. My folks didn’t seem nearly as nuts as those of my friends.
What were your early influences?
My earliest art memory were the Grandma Moses prints that my mother had all over the house. The little people and animals in big landscapes were wonderful to me. When I was a teen a friend gave me a big book of Dali’s work, which I studied very carefully and even tried to copy some of the paintings. He was a God for a while. I’m still trying to shake him.
The Cold War/Red Scare was always with us. Duck and cover was the mantra of the day. The filthy Russians wanted us dead. During the Cuban missile crisis my mother told 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. I’m sure that this atmosphere contributed to the overall paranoia that shows in my work. I watched way too much Twilight Zone as well. As I moved into my college years the Vietnam War was in full swing. Unlike now we were all subject to the draft. This was another unpopular and pointless war. The possibility of being forced to go and kill or be killed 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 and the whole hippie/psychedelic/eastern religion phenomenon. 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.
During art school I lived with two members of the “Los Four” group, (Gilbert Lujan/Magu, Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero and Beto de La Rocha). They are the grandfathers of the Chicano art movement in LA. I worked with Carlos on a few projects and a mural for the United Farm Workers Union. They introduced me to the work of the great Mexican muralists, Rivera, Orozco, and Siquieros. The idea that art could be used as a tool to bring light to injustices and that artists have some responsibility to make comment about the times and expose the villains of the day was made clear to me by their work.
What was your training at Otis Art Institute like?
I wanted to be an artist all along. But when I reached college age, art was not a serious career in the eyes of my family. I was also interested in architecture and that was acceptable to them so I spent two years doing that. I have to say that my architecture training has really paid off whenever I want to include a building in one of my paintings. After architecture school I went to Otis where I received a masters degree in painting and design. While I was there Otis was changing from a traditional art school to a more modern approach. The old faculty hated the new guys from New York who were mostly conceptual artists. Each faction would tell us to completely disregard the other. It made for some interesting debate and backstabbing.
I remember once when I walked into design class and saw the instructor sitting in the center of the room in the lotus position with a calm look on his face. Around him were candles and incense burning. My fellow students were standing in a circle around him. When he finally opened his eyes he told us that he had taken some acid twenty minutes earlier. His idea was to (would (delete) just sit there and see what happened and interact with us as the moment inspired. That sort of thing was not really so unusual in those days.
How does your surfing lifestyle on the central coast influence your art?
There is a lot natural beauty here, which, if your eyes are open, cannot be ignored. The ocean here is spectacular and surfing keeps me in touch with the power of the natural world. Much of my work includes landscapes and ocean scenes inspired by this area. A sort of odd mix of plein air painting infused with modern anxiety. The fact that I have not lived in LA for about 30 years keeps me somewhat out of touch with the urban art scene. This is good and bad but overall it has contributed to an eccentric style of work.
How has politics taken a center stage in your art?
I don’t consider myself primarily a political artist but I have always tried to include some kind of comment. I’m not satisfied to just make something pretty or funny. I usually begin a painting with a beautiful natural landscape, but can’t seem to leave it at that. I feel compelled to fill it up with depictions of absurd human activities and/or violent acts of revenge by Mother Nature. These depictions are full of symbolism, exaggeration and parody, much in the manner of political cartoons. I like to show men involved in their own tiny dramas while oblivious to greater and more powerful forces around them. Most of my work in the past had social, religious or political undertones and commented in a more general way about the human predicament.
However, recent events in the world, the environmental emergency and the political direction of this country have been alarming to me and have caused my work to become more specific. The guys running things right now seem to work day and night against everything I believe in and are rapidly moving this country towards a fascist state. This is a time for artists with a political bent to make stronger statements. I feel compelled to do something to resist these people and for me art is the natural way to do it. I don’t know how effective political art is but at least it contributes to the general culture of resistance. Others of like mind seem happy to see their feelings made real visually and it also has a therapeutic value for me. I have attempted to retain in the work the fun that can come from satire and parody and at the same time deal with these serious subjects.
Describe your technique.
Concept was king and technique was out of fashion when I was in school, so I’m pretty much self-taught through trial and error. The ideas for my paintings usually come to me all at once like dreaming. I begin by making a few small pencil sketches until I’m somewhat satisfied. I work out all the big elements in the painting, using only white and sepia acrylic. This allows me to make changes rapidly until I am satisfied with the drawing, values, and composition. After completing the acrylic under painting I proceed with oil paint and color on top. Even at this stage I will often make big changes in the piece.
Where do you find your source material?
I have a lot of art books on art history and my favorite artists, which I shamelessly rip off. I also have books of circus art, sci-fi illustration, modern weapons, tanks, trains, ships, robots, landscape painting, folk art, and comics.
R. Crumb and the whole Zap comic gang are my favorite cartoon artists. The humor and psychedelic bizarreness are right in tune with my taste. Mr. Natural was brilliant. When I was a kid The Flash was my favorite guy. He could run so fast that he could travel into the future.
In terms of art history, who has made an impact on you?
Of the older masters I would say that Goya is the most important. His skill as a painter was incredible but his social and political comment were even more powerful. He had a genius for depicting the stupidities, hypocrisy, and superstitions of the human race. Honest criticism of the powerful was very risky in those days. His Disasters of War and Los Caprichos engravings are my favorites. Gustave Dore and Pieter Bruegel are also favorites because of their big-picture cosmic view of the human predicament. Dore’s illustrations for Paradise Lost and the Divine Comedy are mind blowing. Bruegel’s Triumph of Death and The Tower of Babel are among my favorite paintings ever.
You live in such a beautiful part of the world. How did you develop your propensity for the dark side?
I think my dark side developed long before I moved to this area. After all, I did grow up it Los Angeles and for a while I thought the whole world looked that way. I believe if you have even a small awareness of world events and history then one can’t help but be somewhat cynical. It’s hard for me to ignore. I suppose you can take the boy out of the dark but not the dark out of the boy. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been troubled by the state of things. Maybe it was all that talk about heaven in Sunday school. Given this beautiful planet, our intelligence, talent, and opposable thumbs, one would think that things for us would be a lot better than they are. In terms of what we do to each other and to our environment, we really are fiddling while Rome burns. As a result of this perspective, satirical work is the logical direction for me. Humor allows for comment to be made without alienating the viewer. I believe it also takes a larger view and shows some affection and sympathy for the players in it.
What themes will you address next?
I’m thinking about doing some more plein air paintings with robots and such destroying farms and wineries. Those are fun and a good diversion from my more serious stuff. I plan to do more pieces with men dragging skyscrapers and pushing boulders around in landscapes. I also think a series of babies smoking would be nice. Another portrait of Bush is in the works too.
What sort of message would you like to give to young artists?
Probably the most important is to just keep working and don’t expect great results at first. If you don’t put in the time then it’s just not going to happen. Don’t worry too much about trends or what everybody else is up to. Just as we all have different fingerprints, I think that if we are true to ourselves then our artistic voice will be just as unique.
Do you have any concluding thoughts that you would like to express?
I don’t want to create the impression that all my work is dark and disturbing. When I’ve had enough of social or political comment for a while, I will occasionally change direction and try to create work that is just for fun or expresses my sense of wonder at just being alive. Apart from all the trouble we cause ourselves, I believe we are immersed in a powerful and beautiful mystery. The fact of our existence is a great riddle. Gauguin in his famous painting asks, “From where do we come? What are we? Where are we going?” For me, those questions are always worth trying to answer.
For more information about Mark Bryan, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit him on the web at artofmarkbryan.com