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Acerbic Art: Mark Bryan's Fantastical (and Political) Worlds

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In the fertile, sometimes frightening, realm of Mark Bryan's imagination, robots ravage vineyards, clowns and con artists congregate at Washington D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial, and political pundits attend "Alice in Wonderland"-style tea parties. Even the most seemingly innocent figures- fluffy bunnies, grinning circus monkeys, chubby-cheeked babies - conceal a sinister side.

"I do a lot of whimsical stuff," the San Luis Obispo artist explained. "Satirical humor is a way ... of making something digestible. You can present something serious in a way that's seductive, that makes people want to laugh, but there's also some truth to it."

Bryan explores a darkly comic version of the apocalypse in his latest exhibition, "The Rupture," running now through Sept. 5 at the Leeds Gallery in Santa Cruz. The show, whose title is a twist on the oft-prophesied Rapture, moves to the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo in October.

A prolific painter whose work has been exhibited across California and the United States, Bryan enjoys pairing beautiful imagery with ugly subject matter, creating satirical oil paintings rife with religious and political overtones. But while his works often court controversy, they also exhibit a sly, sardonic sense of humor.

"There's a lot of political art that's very really powerful and scary and gnarly and not funny at all. There's nothing wrong with that," Bryan said, but he prefers a softer, more seductive approach. "I'm more interested in making people think."

Raised in the Los Angeles County suburbs of Downey and Whittier, Bryan studied architecture at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo before enrolling at Otis College of Art and Design in 1970. It was there, while working on his master's degree, that the young painter shared a house with Carlos Almaraz and Frank Romero, who founded the influential Chicano artist collective Los Four with Roberto de la Rocha and Gilbert Lujan.

According to Bryan, the Los Angeles artists fed his political leanings and encouraged him to study Mexico City's famed murals. He even collaborated with them on a couple of murals, helping them craft a backdrop on canvas for a 1974 United Farm Workers of America convention in Tehachapi.

"Cesar Chavez actually came in and watched us one night," recalled Bryan, who was 23 at the time. "He was very down to earth [and] interested in what we were doing." (Despite his exposure to that atmosphere, however, Bryan said political themes didn't fully emerge in his art until decades later, during the George W. Bush presidency. "Those guys were a gold mine of material for a satirist," he said.)

Bryan returned to the Central Coast in 1976, lured by the region's natural beauty. After a roughly 15-year hiatus from painting, during which he established a family and a carpentry business, he took up the brush once more.

Over the years, Bryan has built a reputation as one of California's most creative, uncompromising artists, appearing in the pages of the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee newspapers and Juxtapoz magazine. Rather than drive away buyers, however, Bryan's political stance has made him surprisingly popular, Steynberg Gallery owner Peter Steynberg said, noting that his gallery has hosted five solo shows by Bryan since 2005.

"I have sold so many of his paintings, it's unbelievable," said Steynberg, whose private art collection includes Bryan's 2007 series "The Seven Dalís of the Pop Calypso." "He's always gotten a really, really great response. We always think 'This show's going to be a failure,' but we haven't had one yet."

While Bryan's work strikes a chord with art aficionados of all political stripes, Steynberg said, it has been known to inspire a violent reaction or two.

After seeing Bryan's 2007 painting "Debby and Child," which depicts the Virgin Mary breastfeeding a lascivious, lip-licking infant, "Some character from Southern California ... threw his coffee all over my cash register and caused quite a scene," Steynberg recalled, adding that the man also shouted "racial slurs" at him. "All my customers came around me and we pushed him out of the gallery."

Bryan's show at the Leeds Gallery, his first in Santa Cruz, is sure to stir up similarly strong emotions.

In "Ship of State," the US Capitol Building rests atop an ocean liner, slowly sinking under the waves while champagne-sipping men and women watch from the comfort of lifeboats laden with money bags. They seem oblivious to the survivors still splashing in the icy waters.

"To me, the Titanic sinking was the perfect metaphor," said Bryan, who drew inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street movement. "It represents the U.S. government dead in the water, sinking, dysfunctional. The American people are onboard (but) there are no lifeboats except for the rich."

"Who Would Jesus Bomb," which depicts a version of Rio de Janeiro's famed Christ the Redeemer statue dropping explosive loaves and fishes on an unsuspecting populace, was inspired by the popular bumper sticker. "I haven't got anything against Jesus. He was a revolutionary and a pacifist," Bryan explained, but he does oppose right-wing fundamentalists who use their Christian faith as a justification for war.

And then there's "The Mad Tea Party Part D'uh," a follow-up to 2005's "The Mad Tea Party," which depicts former vice presidential candidate and current Fox News personality Sarah Palin serving Kool-Aid to conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. In the background, former vice president Dick Cheney takes down a Barack Obama poster.

"Mark's art enriches people's lives because it does have this humorous take. It gets people to look at things in a different light," Leeds Gallery director Julia Blessing said. She holds up Bryan's 2006 portrait of Cheney, "Dick," as one example. "People just walk (into the gallery) and go, 'Oh my god,' and laugh," she said.

Blessing personally has a soft spot for "Odalisque," his pastoral portrait of a humanoid sheep whose sensuous pose recalls the Turkish harem slaves depicted in 19th-century erotic paintings. "There's almost this dialogue going on with that painting," she said.

Although only a quarter of Bryan's work is overtly political in nature, he acknowledges that the paintings that deal with social issues such as war, poverty and inequality garner the most attention. "People really respond to artists who say the things they want to (say)," he said.

"I'd like to be a political cartoonist, but I don't get a good idea every day," added the artist, who counts American editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast and Spanish painter Francisco Goya among his greatest influences. Still, he said, he's determined to have his voice be heard.

"On the sides of the political spectrum, there are always people pushing one way or the other way," Bryan said. "(Painting) is kind of like voting. You've got to step up and make your opinion known."

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