Mark Ryden

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In his 1435 treatise De pictura, the Renaissance-era philosopher Leon Battista Alberti notably laid out the rules for history painting, or istoria, in which rules of perspective and creating a lifelike resemblance to nature, with a clear emphasis on notions of beauty and visual pleasure, are given top priority. Equally important for Alberti was the idea that the spectator of a painting ought to be able to conceptually enter into that picture.

Attending the opening of Mark Ryden’s “The Gay 90s West,” the situation seemed quite the reverse on that last point. It appeared that the cast of Ryden’s paintings had deemed it necessary instead, to enter into our world. Mixed in with the typically casual LA crowd at the 90-plus degree Saturday afternoon event were men in three-piece pinstriped suits and handlebar mustaches, and women with swept-up hairstyles dressed in full petticoat dresses complete with matching parasols. Over the course of the opening, a line for book signings continued to grow until it snaked through Michael Kohn’s new 12,000 square-foot gallery, out the door, around the building, and onto the sidewalk of Highland Avenue in Hollywood. Rest assured, though Ryden may find mixed reception among his critics, this artist has a devout following.

Many could argue with the opening comparison of the Pop Surrealist to the lofty Alberti, pointing out that Ryden breaks any number of the other rules laid out in the Florentine author’s rules for istoria. For although the artist’s precise style of painting might rival later French Academy standards, the paintings are not based on any pre-existing classical texts, nor are they illustrative of any familiar morality-based themes. Rather, they seem an incongruous anachronistic amalgamation of allegorical imagery, in which the familiar is turned on its head. Most notable in this exhibition, the iconic figure of Abraham Lincoln makes frequent guest appearances, a sort of mad reinterpretation of Grant Wood’s 20th-century American version of history painting, Parson Weems’ Fable (1939). Only here, Honest Abe replaces young George, raw meat the felled cherry tree, and in place of Weems, an offstage Ryden pulls back the curtain to destabilize, rather than elevate, nostalgic visions of American folklore.

The painter is known for his puzzling combinations of kitsch and preciousness; historicism and absurdity; Christianity, Buddhism, numerology and the occult; and prehistoric with futuristic images, which may leave viewers longing for their own Little Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder ring in order to unlock their true meaning. All of this, the artist readily acknowledges. “My paintings do arouse many questions,” Ryden begins, “and it pleases me when the questions are asked, because I think it is important for art to raise questions.” He is not, however, so willing to provide easy answers, as he continues: “Answering these questions is another issue.”

Mark Ryden’s own story is a bit more straightforward. The artist was born in 1963 in the town of Medford in southern Oregon, moving with his family through numerous locales including Lake Tahoe, Idaho and Colorado before landing in SoCal where Ryden attended high school and later earned his BFA at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. After graduating in 1987, Ryden got his start as a commercial artist, best known for his work on album covers such as Aerosmith’s Love in an Elevator (1989), perhaps most famously, the ornate cover of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous (1991) and One Hot Minute (1995) by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

In 1995, Ryden was also introduced to a new audience, gracing the cover of the second issue of the then-nascent Juxtapoz magazine and-after a series of group exhibitions at venues such as Merry Karnowsky Gallery, La Luz de Jesus and Track 16-had his first solo exhibition at Mendenhall Gallery in Pasadena in 1998. In 2004, Ryden had his first museum outing, “Wondertoonel,” co-organized by curator Debra Byrne of the Frye Museum in Seattle, and Wesley Jessup, then director of Pasadena Museum of California Art. After breaking attendance records at the Frye, the show traveled south to the PMCA the following year. In the midst of his growing popularity, the notoriously shy artist met his future wife Marion Peck, whose work is also categorized under the banner of Pop Surrealism, at the 2002 exhibition of Gabrielle Bakker and Gloria DeArcangelis at the Frye.

Early on, the prolific artist established his propensity toward the historic. As noted by art critic Holly Myers in the catalog for the 2007 “The Tree Show” exhibition: “What distinguishes Ryden is the rigor of his commitment to historical sources in particular. The artist knows his art history and isn’t afraid to put it to use, enriching both his concepts and his imagery with lessons drawn from across the timeline, not merely from the agitated debates of the last half century, where many contemporary artists’ historical memory seems to taper off.”

The source material for Ryden’s current work continues to be remarkably diverse. Stylistically speaking, it seems to encompass the Dutch Baroque, Neoclassical portraiture, the symbol-laden precision of the Pre-Raphaelites, and is thematically compatible with the dreamlike narratives that haunt both the works of the classic Surrealists and their Pop descendants. In response, Ryden replies, “I do indeed look at a great deal of classical art, but I also look and combine this influence with contemporary art and pop culture. A package from the grocery store or an old postcard from the flea market can hold as much inspirational power for me as a masterpiece by Ingres or statue by Brancusi.”

And it just may be that this fearless reckoning of academic finesse with kitsch, or more pointedly, a mash-up of Ingres with Mattel, is what some critics have found so objectionable. Readers of the Los Angeles Times will note Ryden’s recent pummeling, where critic David Pagel deridingly, and almost gleefully, nominates the unlikely pair of Thomas Kinkade and Robert Williams as the artist’s “real peers.” This derision is certainly not limited to Ryden, but also many of those artists who continue the centuries-long tradition of painting in the narrative tradition. “I have been criticized as a ‘kitschmeister,’” Ryden responds, “but I believe kitsch is a domain that holds the powerful universal archetypes of the collective consciousness. So, instead of shying away from these themes, I jump in completely.”

In particular “The Gay 90s West” exhibition provided a perfect opportunity to push, in the words of the artist, “sentimentality and kitsch to its utmost limits.” The “Gay 90s” theme itself refers to the term invented in the 1920s, when a utopian vision was first crafted of this earlier era. The period “soon became associated with the idea of ‘old-fashioned’ in general,” the artist explains, “by the time I was born, in 1963, ‘The Gay 90s’ had become something comically distorted and far removed from anything remotely resembling the actual 1890s.”

The thematic exhibition debuted in 2010 at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, “The Gay 90s: Olde Tyme Art Show,” with the sequel in Los Angeles originally scheduled for November 2011 at Michael Kohn Gallery. About that time the LA gallery itself began planning a renovation, and the idea was born to postpone the exhibition to be the inaugural show in the new space. The delay, which ultimately lasted three years, allowed for the addition of striking new additions to the show, including the large-scale mysterious genre scene, The Parlor (Allegory of Magic, Quintessence and Divine Mystery), and the custom-redesigned antique diorama, Memory Lane.

Installed in a side gallery devoted to 1890s ephemera from the artist’s personal collection, the refabbed automaton is inhabited by a carnivalesque bunch, among them a Barber Shop Quartet, children happily carting home fresh meat from a street vender along with twin Lincolns on a bicycle built for two, a Wolfman-driven cable car, and other macabre Dr. Moreau-type machinations which, for a mere penny, circumnavigate the terrain on a train track to the tune of Ryden’s updated version of the 1890s hit, Daisy Bell. In addition, the reclusive artist also collaborated with numerous musicians to cut an album, featuring such unlikely bedfellows as film composer Danny Elfman, pop diva Katy Perry, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and rapper/producer Tyler the Creator.

The main gallery, gleaming with a fresh coat of raw-sirloin pink, was the heart of the exhibition, and showcased the artist’s renowned virtuoso skills. Among the earlier works in the show, Incarnation (2009) evokes the aristocratic portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds, such as the Tate’s Lady Anstruther (1761). The refined garden setting comes complete with a marble urn, column and lush greenery, all suggesting the wealth, circumstance and aristocratic air of her situation. But that is about where it ends. Ryden replaces the upper-class noblewoman with his signature kewpie doll ingénue sporting a platinum bob hairstyle echoed by porcelain skin-even paler than her marble accouterments. Most striking, Lady Anstruther’s pink satin gown is here transformed into cascading layers of raw meat. (This painting is said to have inspired the infamous gown worn by Lady Gaga at the 2010 Video Music Awards-later to be cured, dried and put on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Meat Dancer, 2011, Oil on canvas with vintage frame, 75″ x 50″

Nearby, a dark-haired beauty in braids floats on air just inches above the earth while holding a large chunk of raw flesh above her head in The Meat Dancer (2011). The maiden is a direct reference to Jules Bouvier’s Fanny Cerrito (1842), as the title dancer portrays Alma, a statue brought to life in the eponymous Romantic-era ballet. Bouvier’s print was a souvenir, depicting the climatic “Enchantment Dance,” as Alma beat a tambourine above her head dancing her way into a small German town. Here, the tambourine in transformed into a choice cut of meat, and Alma is transported from the medieval village of the ballet’s setting into an exotic garden. The location is also distinct from the other works in the show, as the trappings of Incarnation’s English garden are replaced with symbols that disclose Asian influences. The Shinto shrine, hexagonal three-storied pagoda and arched bridge are set in a cultivated garden containing a wild assortment of flora-more than fulfilling Alberti’s notions of creating a pleasing sense of visual variety.

The allusions to Asian culture make their way onto to numerous works in the show, most often in the form of Japanese kana and Chinese characters painted on the Victorianesque buildings in idealized visions of any-town USA or inscribed on the elaborate frames, custom artworks in-and-of themselves. Although the artist gives more credit to contemporary cross-cultural infatuations, such as the “Kawaii,” or “cuteness,” that permeates contemporary Japanese society, it is worth remembering the initial craze for Japanese goods took root in the late 19th century, fueled by the Eastern country’s ambitious participation in the World Fairs, notably the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 and Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

But there can be no denying that the lead character was none other than that towering icon of American History, Abraham Lincoln. An overly literal interpretation might find offense in the appropriation of a near-universally respected figure, but it seems that is not the artist’s intention. One should note, his mere inclusion in an exhibition devoted to a utopian revisionist view of the 1890s can hardly be read as literal. It reveals the artist’s personal fascination with Honest Abe’s unique visage, which Ryden has described as both strange and powerful, and permeating American culture, as one of the earliest, and most widely, photographed presidents of the era, as well as his constant circulation on the penny and five-dollar bill. As the decades passed, Lincoln’s image evolved from that of a real historical personage to a wise and compassionate savior figure divorced from the actual circumstances of his life and death-not unlike the PG-rated American version of Christ, who also regularly haunts Ryden’s oeuvre.

Although it may be tempting to try to pick apart and discern an exact meaning behind every symbol, object, flower and historic figure in these paintings, in the end the total is more mysterious than the sum of its parts. This is a land where Wood’s illustrative paintings of American Mother Goose-style history meets The Island of Misfit Toys crossed with the underground comic cynicism of Robert Crumb. A quick survey reveals images ranging from charming to controversial: a four-armed BodhiSanta bears gifts in The Creatrix while across the room a devastated and flayed Christ peddles down an idealized Main Street USA overlooked by the agnostic evolutionist, Charles Darwin. Each vision challenging the myth “of an idealized small town American utopia,” though in decidedly different ways.

Serendipitously, the late 19th century loomed large in the Los Angeles exhibition calendar this summer, with a pair of impressive shows, “Van Gogh to Kandinsky” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and “The Scandalous Art of James Ensor” at The Getty. Each of these monumental exhibitions centered on innovations in European Modernism, in which experimentations with abstraction dominated the avant garde and collapsed the stranglehold of the grand manner on the tradition of painting. Meanwhile, Ryden’s exhibition unabashedly exhumed the traditions of portraiture, narrative and even istoria. Although Ryden’s use of kitsch is often justified by framing it in terms of “irony,” it may be that this kitsch-kewpie doll innocence reflects not only the state of contemporary culture, but also the propensity to sugarcoat the complexity of realities past and challenge the rosy-tinted lens of nostalgia.

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Mark Ryden in his studio
Photo: Ann Cutting