Table Talk: An Interview with KRK Ryden
KRK Ryden is an artist, musician, Subgenii and Bay Area native whose career I’ve followed for some time. You might say I was hungry to interview him, which is why it was so apropos that the opportunity to do so was, quite literally, served up on a plate. To wit: Oakland’s own The Compound Gallery is inviting artists to customize ceramic plates for the upcoming (August 27th) art show, A Full Plate. KRK stopped by to add flavor to the flatware, and his plates weren’t the only thing that got fired up that day! I had so many questions that I called on KRK at nearby Glob Studios for some table talk. What started as mere platter patter quickly escalated into essential KRKisms on art, immortality, Instagram, bootlegging, psychedelia, serendipity, and advice for the next POTUS.
The Platter Patter
JB: What am I catching you in the middle of? In other words, what’s on your PLATE right now?
KRK Ryden: You’ll always catch me in the middle of something. I’m usually working on art that I sell through Instagram, which is a blessing and a curse. I work way more than I have in my whole life. In between Instagram art, I do some group shows and occasionally solo shows.
How’d you get the ideas for what you painted on the plates at The Compound?
Before I came over, I had some ideas in mind. I wanted to do a good hand-painted spiral–there’s a lot of character you can get out of a spiral. I wanted to do these 40s looking guys in stetson hats and the cutesie type of faces. I wanted to do a cool face on a plate, a 30s looking cartoon face.
Lets say (hypothetically), a collector chose to use one of your plates to eat dinner. Are there any particular foods you wish you could (hypothetically) ban from coming in contact with your art?
Peas. Dude, I hate peas. I have nightmares of my mom telling me not to leave the dinner table til I finished my peas. Green spots on my plate are aesthetically wrong.
So, what was mealtime like in your household growing up?
I’m the firstborn of five. I have two brothers and two sisters. It was pretty traditional. Some days it kinda looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. My mom was a really good cook. I miss her, and I miss the meatloaf.
What’s the KRK Ryden diet now?
It’s different than it was a couple years ago. I had quadruple heart bypass surgery, and I had five blockages. Now I have to eat a certain way. I was eating two bowls of popcorn with butter every day. Now I don’t eat any butter at all really. I eat that substitute stuff made out of pigeon poop or whatever. And I don’t eat sugar in my coffee. I eat agave. Try it; it’s the only sweetener that doesn’t taste like total shit. Until I have my brain transplanted, I gotta take care of this body. I plan to have my brain transplanted into a clone of my younger self; it’s my plan for immortality. Well, one type of immortality. There’s also artistic immortality: People put a painting up on a wall and they don’t touch it. A painting will stay there for years while everything else just falls to shit.
A Day in the Life of KRK Ryden
What does an average day look like for you?
Today started with Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Then, I had to race over to UPS to ship a painting. I worked til 4 in the morning and got up at 10AM to finish wrapping it and making sure it gets to its destination on Saturday. When I got back from UPS, I had to package up some more stuff, and I took care of a Dancing Spud drawing. I talked to Luke Wurm, the drummer of my band, Ken the Magic Corner God, about the set we’re doing for the 2016 Devotional, and what costumes we’re going to wear.
Right now, I’m just going to package that Spud, and then I’ll get to working on the IGart–a David Bowie piece. Since Bowie died, I’ve done 5 surreal portraits. People really, really like ’em. I typically work on three things at the same time. And I watch a large screen TV about three feet away from me because I can’t stand it without TV or music going. In front of me is just this makeshift weird desk that is a drawing table attached to a stool and then surrounded by other tables that just have a weird experimental mishmash. This place that I work at is surrounded by trees; it’s a really great atmosphere but ridiculously small.
Strange Bedfellows and Surrealism
If you could put your art on any product, what would you choose?
I’ve been trying to make a toy for a while, this character called Moe Hawk: a skateboard kid with a Mohawk. We made a really nice 3D design, but it needs to go to the next step. There’s a lot of toys I’ve wanted to do. I’ve had some offers to make toys before, but they want me to do the things on spec, and that’s nearly impossible. I’ll just lose money. Until a person can say: “here’s X amount of money to do a project,” these cool products I want to do won’t get done. But there is a secret project involving soap…
Money and art make strange bedfellows. It’s fun to close a deal and sell things, but mostly it’s a huge pain in the ass for an artist. I’d rather just be doing art. If I could, I’d hire people to do all these things like Shepard Fairey does. With an army of people. I’d be making all sorts of crazy stuff. Most successful artists know something about money, and they know how to sell themselves and their art. Picasso was a pretty shrewd guy.
Over the years, how has your artistic style evolved or mutated?
I decided to be an artist when I was around eleven years old. (Before that, I wanted to be a scientist because I wanted to wear a scientist smock.) I started doing small drawings when I was eight or so and got a lot of encouragement. At eleven, I sold my first piece to a lady for $20. (It was a painting of her ballerina daughter.) After that, I sold copies of Big Daddy Roth and car-related art I drew on t-shirts. I sold these to fellow students in 5th grade around 1962 for like $3. My dad was a paint and body man, so his profession was cars. I never got into the mechanics, but the magazine CARtoons was a really big part of having fun in the 60s in Hayward, the motor city of California.
Later, when I was a freshmen or sophomore in high school, I’d been painting pretty conservative things like Van Goghs, and I got an assignment to do a report on a movement of art. To choose that movement, we picked slips of paper from a hat. I wanted to do the Italian Renaissance, but I got this thing that said ‘surrealism.’ I didn’t know what the word meant, and I even went to the teacher and asked if it could be changed. She said: “check this out, you’ll probably like it.” The library had some really good books on surrealism and Dali. That was like dropping acid–a real revelation–looking at the first paintings of surrealism that somehow never filtered down to me as a kid. From then on, I never painted anything straight; it was always a juxtaposition of images. Then, later, by the time I was a junior in high school, I was a hippie in South Lake Tahoe, and things got psychedelic. Psychedelia defined my art.
Eternal Salvation or Triple Your Money Back
You’re good friends with Philo Drummond, the co-founder of the Church of the Subgenius. How has BOB influenced you in your life?
When Mark (Mothersbaugh) and I started talking about the Brainwasher project, I was sitting on Laraine Newman’s bed, and Mark brought in a cardboard box of Devo fan letters because we wanted to put a letters section in there. In the box was this publication, this tabloid type of thing from the Subgenius, called The Stark Fist of Removal. Mark said, “We gotta mention these guys. They’re a great rival cult.” So we put a feature in the Brainwasher on Rival Cults. Decades went by, and Bob got more and more famous. Then only two or so years ago, I was here in Martinez, and I was at the Safeway, and I was wearing a Devo t-shirt, and this lady comes up and says “how was the show?” We started talking, and she said: “my husband is Philo Drummond,” and they lived just a couple blocks away from me this whole time. Serendipity at the highest level.
But to answer your question, I started reading the Subgenius literature, and it was such a great relief to read this stuff after being raised Roman Catholic and going to catechism every Wednesday in grade school. Now here were these guys who made a religion that’s light and fun. The principle was slack. Aesthetically, what they did with their books using clip art and 60s ad art cuts really turned me on. It was the coolest stuff, and it was very Devo-looking. I could really relate to that stuff.
Rumor has it, you’re an ordained minister in the Church of the Subgenius…
I’ve married two couples, and I played the wedding march on theremin. One couple is even still married. The contradiction is that I still have a lot of hippie values, and I don’t believe in marriage myself. A couple should love each other for eternity without needing some piece of paper and joining the establishment. But if people want to get married and have a weird party of it, that’s cool too. As long as they do it artistically.
Just a Spud Boy Looking for a Real Tomato
Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh is another one of your good friends and artistic co-conspirators. How’d you two originally hook up?
In 1979, I was working for Ed Rosen, a guy who was the second biggest record bootlegger in the US. He sold unauthorized (not counterfeit) records recorded from soundboards or mics. The bootleg record industry was really cool when it was thriving; it had really awesome artwork, and a lot of bands condoned it. I was hired to make some album cover art, and though I did about a dozen, only one got produced (a live Police recording) before the FBI busted Ed and confiscated all the records and artwork. The last assignment I did was a Devo bootleg. I think it was Mabuhay Gardens in SF. I was in the middle of doing the artwork, and I got word that Ed had been thrown in jail. So I had this artwork which was the best art I’d done out of the dozen pieces he paid for, and it had nowhere to go. So I altered it a bit so it looked more like a comic book cover vs. a record album, and I went to a printer near Encinitas, CA, and they printed posters of it.
I had a friend, Karin, who took one of the posters to a party in Encinitas, and who should be at the party but Mark Mothersbaugh. So she came to my little studio in 1980 I think, and she said, “Mark saw this, and he really wanted to talk to you, but we didn’t have any way to contact you.” I was devastated because Devo is my favorite band, and I didn’t even know they were here in California! Then Karin said, “put your phone number and address on the back of the poster, and maybe another party will come up.” And she took it to another party, and then I get this call, and it was Mark Mothersbaugh, and he wanted me to work on this project called The Brainwasher–the official newsletter magazine of Devo! This call was really epic and historic because in the background, I could hear them popping the cork of a champagne bottle celebrating “Whip It” going double platinum. Mark invited me to Hollywood to work on the project, and we’ve been friends ever since.
KRK Ryden on Art & Instagram
How has Instagram changed the way you work?
I’ve been doing one to three Instagram paintings (called Igarts) every day for three years now. It’s really great. It’s taken a lot of stress off my life because I just post something and put a price on it, and people send a check. It’s really different from doing art shows, a much better situation for me. The only catch is that people don’t like to spend much more than $300 and really prefer spending as little as $35. So I’ve gotta really crank out a lot of these things, but do it in such a way that it looks good. I have over 12,000 followers, and people buy the art usually within minutes of me posting it. Even if a post gets 10% of ‘likes,’ that’s really a lot of eyeballs.
My brother Mark (Ryden) told me about Instagram. We were waiting in line at the Haunted Mansion in Disney World, and he said: “look at this thing.” I posted just pictures for a while, and then I had the notion to ask for some money for a small drawing, and who should buy it, but Ron English. So he bought my first Instagram piece, and a great psychological thing happened: I was really inspired to do more, and it really took off. And it became a career.
What inspired you to create Double Talk, a book of homographs?
Homographs are two words that are spelled the same, but they’re pronounced differently and have two different definitions. Only in the context of a sentence do you know what the word is, and I started thinking about this. I did a brain exercise and wondered how many I could come up with, and I’d just be sitting on the toilet and say, “Eureka, another one!” That went on for a while before I went to a homograph website and found out there are like 200-300 of these words. So I thought what could you do with this…could you make a sentence using both words? I made a little game of it, and then I thought: I should illustrate this. And I did it with such gusto not knowing where they could be sold or who would publish it.
For a while I was doing these black and white illustrations, but I was trying to make a living too. My brother Mark was so impressed that he said he would do a book, and he gave me some money for the original art, which helped it go faster. It took a couple of years or more to finish all of them; there are like 50 of them in the book. I’m really happy with it. It’s a great icebreaker. The hardest thing to swallow about it is when people see it, they love it and they’ll buy multiple copies, but… they really have to see it. With an art book, you need to thumb through it.
I Left My ‘Art’ In San Francisco…
What’s your favorite thing about being an artist in The Bay Area? Least favorite thing?
I love San Francisco. I grew up in the Bay Area, and I was a teenager during the summer of love, and we’d make trips to San Francisco. I was pretty close to the whole hippie movement. The art and culture of San Francisco is unique and has its own feel that is nowhere else. It’s a San Francisco kind of a beat. I’m crazy about the Bay Area, but it’s expensive. I grew up in Hayward and Castro Valley, and I lived in San Francisco, but then I had to move to Oakland. Now I’m in Martinez.
KRK Ryden for President
Politics aren’t “table talk,” but what advice would you give to our next president?
You mean to Hillary? Presidents just do not give enough deference to the arts. They’ve never done enough. In England, they have programs to support artists and help them with rent and stuff. I’ve never heard Hillary say the word ‘art’ in my life, and it’s really a bummer. Obama never said ‘art’ either. Not to say he didn’t do anything with the arts, but it’s fucking dismal. Some serious attention has to be paid to the people who are really moving things–the architects, designers, movie makers–but the attitude is you’re just a bum artist, a third class citizen. But these people are the leaders! They’re leading thoughts and consciousness. What we see, the way we live, it’s all done by artists.
The president needs to wake up. I’ll talk to her. I’m getting braver. I’m OK with Hillary being president especially when I look at these old photos of her as a hippie girl. She had a hippie headband, and Bill was a total hippie. I hope there’s that bit of her still in there, but I’ve been wrong before. I stupidly thought that because Arnold Schwarzenegger smoked pot, he’d be a cool governor, but he didn’t say one thing about pot–and he made some awful decisions. I’m totally against capital punishment.
Marion Peck’s Other Car is a Broom
Back to the plates you painted for one last question: got any good DISH?
I know this: Marion Peck is a card-carrying, crystal ball-gazing witch. In a good way. She even laid a money-drawing spell on me. It worked, too, but I need to get it recharged. Just a word of advice to the interview-reading public: whenever talking about a person behind their back, speak as if they were in the room with you. That way, you’ll never regret your words, and you’ll be forced to be honest.
Wise words indeed! If you’ve read all the way to the bottom here, you’re a forking hero, and I salute you. A handful of KRK Ryden’s art plates are now available online through The Compound Gallery’s Art Shoppe. Come out to A Full Plate on August 27th to see the whole spread!
Bonus: If you need some art to wash your plates (or just a post-interview palette cleanser), you might enjoy: Ladies on Latex: Customized Dishwashing Gloves.