Mark Bryan’s paintings address the (sometimes ugly) state of the union
In Mark Bryan’s oil painting, “Ship of State,” a massive vessel reminiscent of the Titanic, but with The U.S. Capitol building for a super structure, angles downward, slipping into a calm sea strewn with icebergs. Amidst the flailing arms of the passengers struggling to stay afloat, two lifeboats occupied by self-satisfied men in top hats, with bags of money, have their henchmen row them away from the scene.
The piece, Bryan explains, is a metaphor for a government that is dead in the water and about to go under. The rich few escape with all their wealth unscathed, while the rest are left to fend for themselves.
Bryan’s work will be on display at the Leeds Gallery from Aug. 3 through Sept. 5. The new exhibit is called “The Rupture,” a spin-off on the folderol caused by an elderly preacher when he predicted “The Rapture” would bring about the end of the world in May of 2011.
Like the preacher’s vision, many of Bryan’s themes are also apocalyptic, but with a satirical edge. His paintings often tell a story; he considers himself more of an illustrator than a fine artist.
A great number of his works are social and political commentaries on topics such as war and social injustice, conveyed with humor, whimsy and satire.
Bryan explains that his paintings are a way for him to comment on what he sees as atrocities in the world and unpleasant aspects of human nature. With satire and humor, Bryan says he’s able to present disturbing topics in a way that is more palatable for the viewer. He doesn’t want to create art that is so horrific and humorless that it turns people’s minds off to his message.
“The great thing about satirical art is that you can present some terrible situation, but there’s also some reward in it,” he says. “It’s intriguing.”
He describes himself as somewhat introverted, but with something to say about the state of the world, so paintings are the perfect way for him to comment quietly, but with passion.
Bryan was born in 1950 and raised in Los Angeles during the Cold War, a time punctuated by warnings of imminent nuclear holocaust, and then the Vietnam War, which he managed to avoid. These and similar events did much to shape Bryan’s overwhelming sense of doom about the world—a feeling that everything is not all right.
“I think when you’re a kid hearing all this, the world becomes scary,” he says. “You realize, ‘I could die.’ It’s an awakening that things aren’t the way they should be.”
Bryan first became enthralled with painting as a means to make political and social statements when he fell in with a small group of Chicano artists while studying art at Otis College in Echo Park, Los Angeles in 1970. Bryan says these painters had a profound influence on his subsequent work. They painted murals that drew attention to migrant workers’ rights, shed light on social injustices and pushed a political agenda, Bryan says.
Art, he explains, can be “… a way of portraying an injustice in a way that strikes back at it.” Bryan became friends with artists who were pioneering the Chicano Art movement and would later form the artists’ collective “Los Four,” comprising Frank Romero, Carlos Almaraz, Roberto de la Rocha and founder Gilbert “Magú” Luján.
Romero, who worked as a commercial artist, owned a home where Bryan and Almaraz rented rooms for $50 a month.
Some nights, the young artists would sit at a big wooden kitchen table, drinking strong coffee and drawing into the early morning hours. Bryan recalls times when they would pass a drawing around the table, so each of them could contribute to the work.
He still wonders what became of those drawings.
Those were critical years in Bryan’s development as an artist. He says the things he learned from Los Four about political art weren’t being taught in any classrooms.
“These guys had a mission. It was about helping bring justice to farm workers,” he says.
Bryan writes in his artist statement that these were the guys who showed him, through their work, that art could function as a tool to expose the world’s villains and contribute to change.
Some of Bryan’s other work is less direct in its political and social commentary. It is often the result of his asking himself fantastical questions like, “What if robots came to earth and for some reason they hated wineries. And they decided to destroy all of them.”
He explains that this scenario was prompted by what feels like an infinite number of wineries near his home in San Luis Obispo.
In one of his paintings, entitled “Last of the Shiraz,” giant metallic robots roam a grassy hillside shooting death rays out of their chests, laying waste to a picturesque-looking vineyard.
Another, called “The Plan,” depicts a group of rabbits wearing suits, holding shotguns and plotting around a campfire. In their midst, undetected, a monkey listens in on their plan, disguising himself with a cut-out rabbit mask on a stick. Bryan was inspired to paint “The Plan” by the news coverage of terrorist sleeper cells in the U.S.
He also describes a compulsion to include elements of the surreal in otherwise pristine and aesthetically pleasing landscapes.
“I really love beautiful landscape paintings, and I’ve tried to do them, but when I finish, I just don’t see anything going on,” he says. “I tend to add something disturbing but humorous.”
For his piece, “The Collectors,” Bryan recovered an old art print of a Yosemite landscape, which he reprinted onto a canvas so he could paint onto it. He added in a baby dear—“Bambi,” he says—being abducted by a flying gray saucer.
After college, Bryan stopped focusing entirely on art. He married his wife early and for 20 years supported his family as a carpenter and builder. However, Bryan decided to start painting regularly again and in 1990 began showing his work.
Today he lives with his family in a house that he built on a rural patch of land in San Luis Obispo County, near Diablo Canyon. He paints in a small studio, which he built adjacent to the main house.
Though Bryan says not all of his work is about making a political statement, he believes that his work is about being honest to his perspective on the world and sharing something sincere.
He writes in his artist statement, “I’m in the audience, like a court reporter, taking notes with my sketchbook and brushes, playing the critic, here to observe and make comment.”
The opening reception for “The Rupture” will take place from 6-10 p.m. during First Friday on Aug. 3 at Leeds Gallery, 123 Locust St., Santa Cruz. The exhibition runs from Aug.3-Sept. 5. Visit artofmarkbryan.com.
Photos: Mark Bryan