The painting Long Yak (2008) is part of Mark Ryden’s 2009 exhibition “The Snow Yak Show” at the Tomio Kayama Gallery in Tokyo, Japan. In the exhibition Ryden painted a series that depicts a snowy mystical world populated by ghostly pale young girls and soft, furry animals. The color palettes of Long Yak and other paintings like Heaven (2008) and Sophia’s Bubbles (2008) are dominated by white that Ryden accented with tones of gray, blue and pink. This was a departure from Ryden’s the colorful and carnivalesque paintings like The Magic Circus (2001) and The Butcher Bunny (2000). Even though all these paintings feature female children, the figures in “The Snow Yak Show” paintings are especially frail and delicate. The artist confessed that the inspiration for the show came to him in a vivid dream: in the dream he was in the belly of one yak, while looking through an opening at a long yak. Ryden was deeply affected by the dream, believing that dreams of ice and snow come from deep within the psyche.
Long Yak depicts two naked twin-like girls riding on the back of a strange and long creature - the long yak that appeared in the artist’s dream. The pose of the girls riding on the back of the yak is reminiscent of images of Hindu deities, particularly of the goddess Durga that is traditionally depicted riding a tiger or lion. These associations indicate that Ryden conceived these characters as representations of holiness and purity. This idea of purity and innocence is further reinforced by the girls companion, the sweet and furry yak that resembles a soft stuffed toy. The figures ride through a tranquil environment, the snowy landscape, a consistent theme in the paintings of this exhibition. The world in Long Yak and other paintings from the show is simplistic and minimalistics. Even the background that Ryden usually paints in rich detail, is reduced to a monochromatic field. In addition, Ryden decided not to use ornate frames for the paintings. Other paintings like The Magic Circus and Allegory of the Four Elements (2006) have custom made frames, that relate to the overall theme of the painting. The minimalistic approach in “The Snow Yak Show” allows the viewer to concentrate solely on the painting and its content.
Because the “The Snow Yak Show” opened in Tokyo, many have suggested that Ryden was influenced by Japanese culture and tradition. For instance, Yuki-onna, ‘snow woman’ in Japanese, is a spirit in Japanese folklore. The beautiful female spirit appears on snowy nights and is known for her pale and translucent skin that allows her to blend into the winter landscape. As an artist Ryden embraces these associations and suggestions even if these were not necessarily part of his creative process. In his paintings, Ryden creates a network of symbols derived from the conscious and unconscious, from his personal life and pop culture. Thus, for Ryden new suggestions or connections found in his paintings add more layers to the work and further deepen its meaning.