Let me make one thing clear: I think it's absolutely brilliant that someone paid $28,000 on eBay for a grilled cheese sandwich miraculously imprinted with the face of the Virgin Mary. It's a triumph for found art that Duchamp, Warhol, and Damien Hirst would envy. And hell, it beats spending 28 grand on a stupid SUV. So what does this have to do with Mark Ryden's "Wondertoonel," which has slouched inside the doors of the prim Frye Art Museum? Well, for starters, Ryden has a sharp eye for the absurdly miraculous. Things like the severed head of Abe Lincoln juggling half a dozen pork chops.
OK, so the California painter—who is a masterful craftsman—is a touch morbid. But there's a fine line between morbid and observant. Ryden, like William Burroughs, strips the lunch on our forks naked, so we're constantly reminded of the violence behind the surface of our placid little lives. A meticulous painter of the old school (making him a perfect fit for the Frye), Ryden is a postmodern icon maker. His canvases are stocked with a strange and inscrutable array of personal symbols that open a door to the secret life. Again and again, you run into Lincoln, bees, freaky stuffed animals, Jesus statues, numerology, quotes from the world's religious traditions, bodily fluids, and tons of wide-eyed Keane-esque children. As anyone who's spent more than 10 minutes with kids knows, they aren't innocent angels, but instead voracious observers of all that adults try to hide. Just try walking past a road-killed frog on the sidewalk in the company of a 3-year-old. Ryden has that same childlike fascination with the icky. We're just meat, Ryden's canvases insist, but meat that can also read philosophy. In paintings such as Puella Anima Aureo (above) there's a palpable sense of how weird it is to reside in a body. Kudos to departing curator Debra Byrne for bringing this great show to the sleepy Frye. It's a pleasure to watch the Frye's elderly patrons stop to admire a painting of a nude Christina Ricci luxuriating amid a paradise of steaks, wine, Jesus, and stuffed animals. Now that is priceless. Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., 206-622-9250. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; noon-5 p.m. Sun.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thurs.