Once Again, Mark Ryden Reveals an Extraordinary Beauty in Old and Cliched Notions
Last Saturday afternoon, for six hours straight, a steady stream of art enthusiasts showed up for the much-anticipated opening of Mark Ryden's new exhibition The Gay 90s: West, currently on view at the Kohn Gallery's expansive new space located on Highland in the heart of Hollywood.
The Gay 90s: West is the continuation of Ryden's seminal exhibition, The Gay 90s: Olde Tyme Art Show, which took place in 2010 at the Kasmin Gallery in New York. Featuring paintings, drawings, and a site-specific installation, The Gay 90s: West comprises an inspiring collection of works embracing the spirit of an idealized age long forgotten through vaudevillian dreamscapes meticulously detailed in what can only be described as Ryden's eerie yet exacting signatory style.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is "The Parlor: Allegory of Magic, Quintessence, and Divine Mystery" (2012). Set within a Victorian parlor, the painting depicts a party of women clad in bustled garb and seated in front of a staged play featuring an odd array of mystical figures in precarious positions. Standing eight feet in height and spanning ten feet across, the work is indicative of Ryden's painstaking attention to detail. More so is its embodiment of Ryden's brilliant aptitude for negotiating "the aesthetic value of cliched nostalgia through the lens of polished neoclassic painting," as aptly described in the gallery's press release.
Also included in this exhibition is an interesting collection of works on paper. Almost as impressive as Ryden's finished paintings, many of these drawings are preliminary sketches filled with details that provide viewers with a glimpse into Ryden's uninhibited subconscious. The sketch for "The Parlor," for instance, doesn't just read like a blueprint for the finished piece, but it includes additional bits of information. Like a page torn from one of da Vinci's old notebooks, intricate diagrams, figurative studies, and coded language riddle each of the drawing's edges.
Equally impressive is Ryden's on-site installation entitled "Memory Lane" (2013). Much like something you'd find in an old penny arcade, "Memory Lane" consists of an automated diorama encased within a full-scale pink caravan. To accurately describe the fantasy world that Ryden created from found and crafted objects is a near impossible feat, but a few key fixtures worthy of note include a train of vintage vehicles mounted upon on a rotating track, a barbershop quartet made up of Ken dolls outfitted in striped matching blazers, and a small tea party at which the baby incarnation of Abe Lincoln is in attendance.
Alongside the installation hang period specific ephemera amassed by Ryden himself. Also included is a listening station where visitors can tune in to covers of Daisy Bell's "Bicycle Built for Two." Originally recorded by a host of modern-day artists including Katy Perry, Stan Ridgeway, Danny Elfman, Mark Mothersbaugh, and Nick Cave, the renditions of Bell's song make up an entire album entitled The Gay Nineties Old Tyme Music, which was specifically recorded for this exhibition and is available for purchase.
While there's no denying that much of Ryden's work is based in American iconography, it's difficult to classify his work as Lowbrow. One reason for this is because he doesn't approach the subject of kitsch from a patronizing perspective. Rather, he mines the arena of childhood archetypes that commonly permeate through our collective consciousness for inspiration, as explained in an interview he did for Wertical.
Another reason why Ryden has been able to overstretch the dividing line that distinguishes Lowbrow from fine art is because "his paintings are just extraordinarily well painted," as iterated by gallery owner, Michael Kohn. Ryden utilizes a very traditional technique of oil painting in which he incorporates layers of subtle glazes similar to that of the 19th century masters. The process is incredibly time-consuming, but for Ryden, who admittedly "finishes [his] paintings with brush strokes executed under a magnifying glass," as explained in The Japan Times, it is a technique that ascribes to his meticulous inclination towards detail.
Preferring to work within distinct themes, Ryden's past exhibitions have focused upon snow yaks, woodland creatures, bunnies, bees, and, of course, meat, among other things. His decision to focus on the specific era once referred to as a simpler time is indicative, however, of his desire to push himself out of his comfort zone. In an interview he did for Juxtapoz, he explains that the Gay 90s are representative of "the extreme of distasteful kitsch" and that his goal was to "play with it [and] try to pull the lowest of the low into the highest of the high."
Leave it to Ryden to achieve such a feat. Not only does The Gay 90s: West tap into the marginalized world of the 1890s that only a distinct few actually had the benefit of enjoying, but it is exemplary of Ryden's truly mind-blowing capacity for finding an extraordinary beauty in old and cliched notions.
Written by Anise Stevens