Mark Ryden “paints high atop a magic castle in Pasadena . . .,” according to the artist's press bio, “among his many trinkets, statues, skeletons, saints and old toys that he collects for inspiration.” Anyone familiar with Ryden's signature work — fabulous hyperreal renderings of intricate tableaux chock-full of the aforementioned religious icons and childhood figurines, usually engaged in some slightly ominous, unapologetically surrealist antics — may be a little surprised by the sparseness of his new paintings at Earl McGrath Gallery. A star of the Juxtapoz/lowbrow/whatever scene, Ryden's work has previously tended to the horror vacui typical of many lowbrow practitioners, cramming his smallish canvases with a phantasmagoria of creepy, big-eyed children, medical objects, terrycloth bunnies, effigies of Abe Lincoln, and various cuts of meat. This everything-including-the-kitchen-sink strategy, while inevitably entertaining on some level, often exposes how little craft or content an artist actually has in their repertoire.
Ryden has managed to avoid this pitfall by treading a fine line between nostalgic cliché and disturbing archetype, and working obsessively through a magnifying lens to manifest the otherworldliness of his visions in the impossibly detailed and meticulously glazed surfaces of his painted panels. There is something of an arrested adolescence in Ryden's work — in its content, which oscillates between aching over lost innocence and stupefaction at the revelation of personal mortality, but also in its technique, which takes the shibboleth of getting it right to vertiginous extremes. Small wonder he's become a hero to the modernism-despising illustrational set, who measure artistic validity by the illusionistic persuasiveness of receding checkerboard floors and gathered brocade drapery.
It is this same crowd that will be most perplexed by “Blood: Miniature Paintings of Sorrow and Fear,” which forgoes virtuosic clutter for spare iconic arrangements of one or two figures in almost barren environments, although the drapery makes an appearance of sorts. With this new body of work, Ryden seems to have tumbled from his magic castle and landed in the red-velvet interdimensional waiting room from Twin Peaks. The gallery itself has been lined in floor-to-ceiling crimson curtains, and former Wall of Voodoo frontman Stan Ridgway has even provided an appropriately Angelo Badalamenti-esque original soundtrack. All of this theatricality has the effect of reducing the scale of the paintings, which average around 4 by 5 inches (not counting the trademark ornately carved wooden frames) and are diminutive even by Ryden's standards. The content, too, has changed: The violence that previously brimmed just beneath the candied surface of Ryden's images has spilled forth in gushes and torrents, arterial spray spritzing and dripping from the severed heads of otherworldly nymphets — the same precious, wide-eyed tykes that had wandered immune through Ryden's earlier nightmare landscapes.
It's an improvement; for all its technical dazzle, Ryden's pictures have always seemed a little pat, too self-contained, too sure of themselves. While it might be tempting to attribute the reduced scale to cost-effectiveness (somewhere around $535 per square inch) or the angst levels to midlife crisis (one work depicts a moppet weeping at a gravestone inscribed with “40” — Ryden's age as of January 20), the paintings in “Blood” are too genuinely disturbing — especially at this moment, when images of mutilated Iraqi children clog the airwaves — to be mistaken for attempts at manipulation. A few small sacrifices genuinely felt have a greater impact than all the glitzy toys and arcane ephemera in the world.
Jonathon Rosen's press bio claims he is “perhaps best known for the Ichabod Crane journal drawings and design seen in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow.” While those intricately inscribed pages did leap from the screen, anyone who had paid even passing attention to the world of comix or professional illustration over the previous decade was already familiar with Rosen's style. I first ran across his work in Snake Eyes, an early-'90s comic that ran for only three issues (I think), but was the most consistently high-quality anthology title of the decade. Rosen's work stood out for its accomplished graphic design and its avoidance of the kind of traditional linear narrative structures that had overwhelmed the more experimental, visually oriented strain of underground comics. Throughout the '90s, Rosen alternated between comix and illustration gigs for clients like The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Time; he also contributed a brilliant set of animation sequences to the Residents' sadly out-of-print Bad Day at the Midway. Although he now lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the School of Visual Arts, Rosen grew up in Silver Lake, so his current solo exhibition at La Luz de Jesus — his first L.A. solo show since 1984 — is something of a homecoming.
Rosen pieced together his own art education from various L.A. institutions — many years at the Junior Art Center in Barnsdall Park followed by a patchwork of City College courses focusing on printmaking and electronic-collage music. His visual style reflects these dual preoccupations, with their dense layers of information and tendency toward appropriation, repetition and degradation. Thematically, Rosen's imagery tenders a dark dystopian translation of the happy cyborg vision that underlies many technology-based practices — the literal intermingling of man and his tools. Drawing from a wide range of inspirations — medical and technical illustration, images from pulp fiction and early advertising, medieval woodcuts, circus posters and alchemical engravings — he cobbles together a cryptic cast of hybrid monsters, creaking mechanical half-breeds collapsing under the weight of their brave new world. Although he's playing with a similar deck as Ryden, Rosen's final product is very different. His visual-art vocabulary embraces modernism in more fundamental ways: incorporating formalist compositional strategies that address the flatness of his media, incorporating fine art and commercial printmaking elements with a nod to Rauschenberg, and mining a deep vein of human/machine symbolism that fascinated Dadaists like Ernst, Picabia and Duchamp.
Over the past few years, Rosen has developed an interchangeable roster of pictograms, a sort of post-apocalyptic bio-mechanical tarot deck that he continually reconfigures. He offers more than two dozen such arrangements in “The Birth of Machine Consciousness.” While many artists capable of composing a compelling small-scale drawing fall apart when faced with larger scales, Rosen's standout work is by far the largest piece in the exhibit, the two-panel From a New Zodiac for Sentient Machines, a Soviet-hued dyptich that allows his robotic subjects to unfold to new levels of feverish complexity. The next strongest work in the show is, unsurprisingly, a print multiple. The “catalog” for the exhibit is, in fact, a lavish, limited edition of multipass silkscreen prints published by Le Dernier Cri, probably the most opulent publishers of comix-related art books. With only 50 published and an initial price of $350, it's my Art Steal of the Week.
In a corner of the La Luz gallery, Rosen's work is presented on TV in the form of two elaborate animations whose flickering, clockwork action suits his work perfectly, while illuminating his debt to Georges Méliès, Jan Svankmajer and Harry Smith. By purposefully mixing and blurring the categories of painting, digital and photographic animation, printmaking and commercial printing, Rosen's technique mimics the crackpot experimental miscegenation of his creatures, and his emphasis on the flaws and limitations of mechanical reproduction echoes their failure. Our role as embattled meat puppets has seldom been more sadly and humorously illustrated.
MARK RYDEN: BLOOD: MINIATURE PAINTINGS OF SORROW AND FEAR | At Earl McGrath Gallery, 454 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 657-4257 | Through May 10
JONATHON ROSEN: THE BIRTH OF MACHINE CONSCIOUSNESS | At La Luz de Jesus Gallery, 4633 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 666-7667 | Through April 27