Mark Ryden spent two years on the Memory Lane diorama in “The Gay 90's: West,” his second Kohn Gallery exhibition and the first show at the gallery's new Hollywood space. A dense collection of found, altered objects and painted miniatures all set behind glass inside a hand-carved, 9-foot-long carriage, the diorama looks like a pastel-colored cross between that HBO drama Deadwood and a 1940s variety show. There's an unruly crowd in a bar, barbershop singers wearing striped suit coats; haughty, well-dressed dolls; and Abe Lincoln's head painted pink and put on a baby's naked body. When you drop a penny through a slot on the side, the sappy vintage pop song “Daisy Bell” starts to play, and certain figures, including a group of white skeletons and a pink horse, begin to move. Despite the weirdness of what's actually there, the meticulous presentation makes looking at it like looking at a fantastically detailed antique carousel or circus wagon. You fixate on craft before content, or at least the craft invites you to accept the content without necessarily questioning it.
“It is not a conscious thing,” Ryden says of his choice to use certain kinds of imagery and render it in a certain way. “If an artist is overly conscious when making their creation, their work will be superficial.”
He also says he paints from his heart, when asked about the reappearance of the same kinds of imagery in his work (like the doe-eyed, cartoonish ladies that are so recognizably his), a way of saying he doesn't need to defend his instinctual decisions, even in a contemporary-art context, where thinking critically about why you do what you do is, for many participants, the main point. This sensibility divide gives some insight into what certain audiences want from art.
Ryden has been called a “crossover artist” by gallerists and various journalists, meaning he's stretched across two different kinds of art worlds. After a decade illustrating some truly remarkable album covers — he's behind that regal fantasia on the cover of Michael Jackson's Dangerous — Ryden got his start as a painter in arenas associated with “lowbrow,” specifically the figurative art that's come to be known as “pop surrealism.” Colorful and characterized by an unapologetically sincere embrace of fantasy and kitsch, it identified itself in opposition to the realm of white-walled, contemporary art galleries. But since the mid-2000s, Ryden's success in those white-walled spaces and with the collectors who buy from them has been growing. “It simply comes naturally to me to strive to climb higher up the mountain, even if I may not feel like I belong,” Ryden says of his decision to show with Kohn Gallery.
His painting of a girl with a bird's nest in her golden hair, which the gallery borrowed back for this show, sold for $680,000 at auction last year, and gallery owner Michael Kohn consistently points out that MOCA trustees, like smart Cliff and Mandy Einstein, are among his collectors (in addition to celebrities like Katy Perry and Leonardo DiCaprio).
When Kohn first saw Ryden's work in a gallery show and in an exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in 2005, he liked it because it reminded him of his childhood love for the Warner Bros. aesthetic and college love for 16th-century mannerism. “But nobody in my art world knew about him,” says Kohn, who's good at making it clear that his art world, one he got his foothold in by showing conceptual and abstract work, isn't the only one.
The art world that did know about Ryden included fans like those who arrived at last weekend's opening in elaborate costumes or those who write “I've fallen in love all over again” when Ryden posts a new photo on Facebook. And it included the readership of the magazine Juxtapoz, started in the 1990s to champion artists too transgressive for “high” art worlds, many of whom have since become too popular to be considered outsiders. Evan Pricco, its editor, wasn't around when Ryden's work appeared on the magazine's second cover, in 1995, but it was a major moment for Ryden. During the early 2000s, next to Shepard Fairey, Ryden may be the artist Juxtapoz covered most. “Our audience loved him,” explains Pricco via email. “He created these crazy little universes that had themes, great selections of imagery, that felt like kitsch but were so much more well executed than so many artists out there.”
That execution is mentioned again and again. “Mark Ryden is a master of the [lowbrow] style” with “the skill of a Beaux-Arts academician,” wrote Ken Johnson, in The New York Times, after Ryden had his first show at Paul Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea. When Ryden's “The Snow Yak Show” opened in Tokyo in 2009, the Japan Times called Ryden “masterful,” as well as a “messiah,” and Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara contributed a foreword to the catalog, saying that Ryden's commitment to his painterly craft and elimination of any narrative motifs set him apart.
“The most conspicuous virtue is a sophisticated degree of skill, and maybe a kind of populism,” says critic Holly Myers, via email, about pop surrealism in general. “And some of this work is quite complex. But it tends not to be especially critical, either inwardly or outwardly.”
Myers grappled with Ryden's work for L.A. Weekly in 2007, before she began writing for the L.A. Times, and has great respect for it, though she's not necessarily sure if or how to fold him into the mainstream art world.
“The truth is, I have no idea what bedrocks Ryden's work,” says Seattle Stranger critic Jen Graves, unpretentious in her approach to art writing but not terribly interested in pop surrealism, also via email. “What's with the parade of big-eyed white girls with blood running out of their eyes or milk shooting out of a nipple and feeding a toy elephant? Ryden's a hell of a painter, but what's he about?”
The first room of Ryden's current show has all coral-colored walls and is full of large paintings in ornate frames, like the vaudevillian Parlor — Allegory of Magic, Quintessence, and Divine Mystery, every inch of which is carefully detailed, and Meat Dancer, in which a dark-haired girl dances while holding a slab of meat over her head. The Memory Lane diorama is in a back room. On the wall opposite the diorama, Ryden has installed his source material for the show: prints and record covers celebrating the “Gay '90s.”
The term “Gay '90s,” a reference to the 1890s, didn't exist before the 1920s, when a fetishization of an old-timey East Coast high life and the Wild West took hold. Ryden began collecting this paraphernalia at flea markets because it compelled and repulsed him. It features scenes of ladies in puffed sleeves in parlors or horse-drawn carriages. “For me, this is the stuff that makes me cringe,” Ryden says. “That's the parallel. The feeling that I get from this is like the feeling some people get from my paintings. I'm trying to take this stuff and turn it into something I find worthy of being a painting.”
While compositions, objects or outfits from his source material appear in his paintings, he's replaced the quaint, vintage feel with his intentionally unironic, smoothly rendered slabs of meat, doll-like ladies and Abraham Lincoln figures. The imagery becomes Ryden's entirely, and engaging with it means entering his world and admiring his deftness. This may be what causes the difficulty for those who don't come to art to submit to an artist's vision, who prize their skepticism and want art to heighten it, or make them feel more aware of the world they're already in. “Everyone has their threshold,” Ryden says without a trace of frustration.
MARK RYDEN: THE GAY 90'S: WEST | Kohn Gallery | 1227 N. Highland Ave.,
Hlywd. | Through June 28 | kohngallery.com