Like Mark Ryden? Hate Mark Ryden? Maybe You
Want Different Things From Your Art
May 8 2014
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
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
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.
by Catherine Wagley