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Political painter Mark Bryan and his vibrant, satirical work

STIR speaks with American satirist Mark Bryan, and discusses ethos, practice and trajectory.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Dec 04, 2020

American painter Mark Bryan has risen to prominence through the clever and vibrant political satire that characterises some of his oeuvre. These canvases often blur the line between the ‘real’ and the absurd, and sometimes obliterate that line entirely, creating surreal, humorous, and at times frightening scenes of political excess. These are marked by a distinct, maniacal fervour, typically shared amongst the grinning, devilish members of the American political class that find themselves within Bryan’s paintings. Meanwhile, Bryan’s portrayal of ordinary people within these pieces often relegates them to the position of fervent spectators or literal sheep, held in thrall by their preening, parading leaders, an aspect of his work that perfectly references the cult-of-personality appeal that political icons enjoy to a worrying degree all over the world.

Evening in the Valley | Mark Bryan | STIRworld
Evening in the Valley Image: Mark Bryan

A child of the Cold War, the artist grew up in the 50s and 60s in a household of politically active liberals. His parents were critical and aware of geopolitical events as they unfolded during this precarious era, and that as a child he “probably heard too much”. Bryan says, “There was in the air a general anxiety about nuclear war and the memories of World War II were still strong in my parents’ generation. I played war with the other kids in my neighborhood. The Germans and the Japanese were always the bad guys but they never had a chance”. Memory and reality did not align however, and as Bryan grew older, he would enter a world wherein the Soviet Union were a very realistic and immediate threat to American primacy, and if the alarmist “duck and cover” mentality of public service announcements of the time were to be believed, domestic safety as well. He describes how through events such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King as well as a pop culture paradigm that thinly veiled political commentary behind science fiction tropes, Bryan came to view mankind as deeply flawed. This, along with his enduring interest in political affairs has likely formed the base that his sardonic and visceral artistry is built upon.

Death Leading the People, a piece that is perhaps increasingly relevant every day | Mark Bryan | STIRworld
Death Leading the People, a piece that is perhaps increasingly relevant every day Image: Mark Bryan

Bryan is well aware of the portion of his oeuvre that has impressed itself upon audiences most strikingly, yet, makes it a point to mention that it is just that; merely a portion of his entire creative output. He says, “I enjoy doing lighthearted and humorous work and strange surreal pieces. Some of these works crossover into commentary and make subtle symbolic statements”. Being an artist of some versatility, one wonders how so many decades into his career Bryan still chooses the path of most resistance, finding within himself a certain edge in order to manifest art that shocks and provokes. Bryan’s response to this speaks to a simplicity and sincerity of purpose: “Keeping my edge isn't so hard because the bad players in this world create a lot of anger and emotion in me. Making fun of these people with satirical works is my way to hit back, and it may be somewhat therapeutic for me and hopefully for others as well. There are many types of art but for me I feel like an artist’s duty is to tell the story as they see it, of the time in history that they are a part of”. Certainly, there is a distinct cathartic sentiment to be found in engaging with Bryan’s work, as his art taps into an overblown and comical perspective many of us may share with regards to his subjects, yet are often unable to express in the halls of polite public discourse. In essence, Bryan says what’s on our minds, and he says it loudly and bombastically, with the imagination, precision and clarity of one who has carefully honed his craft over decades.

The Mad Tea Party, Bryan’s first piece to garner great attention from general audiences | Mark Bryan | STIRworld
The Mad Tea Party, Bryan’s first piece to garner great attention from general audiences Image: Mark Bryan

The artist’s first major breakthrough came when he began to produce highly detailed political caricature of the Bush/Cheney government, whose brutal excursion into Iraq and the hellish consequences thereof typified international news all through the early 2000s. He mentions that he believed that their mission in the Middle East had little to do with the 9/11 terrorist attack, and it was in fact the dethroning of Saddam Hussein and the seizure of Iraqi oil resources that Informed their mandate. Among his works during this time, the painting that garnered the most attention was The Mad Tea Party, which placed a childlike George Bush in the centre of a nightmarish tea party, surrounded by member of the American military industrial complex and attended by characters from Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. The cruel irony of this painting is that Carrol’s characters, who by all means should be among the most eccentric and unhinged attendees at the gathering, are themselves shocked and horrified by Bush’s desire to carve up a cake in the likeness of the world map.

The Nightmare | Mark Bryan | STIRworld
The Nightmare Image: Mark Bryan

Bryan mentions that several people have come forward to express solidarity and congratulate him on his brave depictions. On the prospect of facing repercussions for his treatment of political figures, he expresses a surprising degree of faith in the American legal system. He says, “I had faith then and still do in the protections of the US Constitution. Hopefully things will stay that way. In fact, nothing negative has ever happened to me coming from the Bush or Trump administrations as a result of my work. I have only received angry criticism from right leaning private citizens which is predictable”.

Too Much Trump | Mark Bryan | STIRworld
Too Much Trump Image: Mark Bryan

Politically motivated artists such as Bryan have certainly had a field day criticising Donald Trump, the soon to be ex-45th president of the United States of America, as his appalling antics, both on and off the political field have manifested a seemingly bottomless fount of material to criticise and comment upon. However, with Trump’s recent loss to Joe Biden, that well is all set to run dry, leaving the question of where practitioners such as Bryan will turn their attentions. His response is fitting for an artist who has seen the rise and fall of governments and world powers, and through it all, has never slackened his grip on his unique artistic voice: “When I am not especially outraged by certain individuals or specific events, I prefer to make paintings that comment on the bigger more timeless issues such as religion, evolution, global warming, the environment and human nature. I see myself working more in this direction in the near future. In general, I see issues of race, immigration, climate change and income disparity as being major topics coming up for editorial cartoonists. Since human beings are such problematic creatures, I am never worried that artists will run out of material to work with. As long as there are people, I think the chances of that happening are zero”.

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