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"The Forest for the Trees"
With his new gallery show, Mark Ryden takes one more slow step into the mainstream
By Michael Cervin
“There is an open-mindedness and imagination that is free in Los Angeles, which is stifled in places like New York,” says Mark Ryden. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s hard to argue with an immensely successful artist like him. True, L.A. may be the source of many modern evils, but “just the fact that this is a place where new ideas come to be is wonderful.”

He’s surprisingly upbeat for a painter who still considers himself “an underground artist,” in spite of obvious acclaim. Indeed, the Oregon-born, Southern California-raised 43-year-old hasn’t been affiliated with mainstream galleries eager to expose his art to a wider audience. But that is changing. The Michael Kohn Gallery has invited Ryden to play in the big leagues with his latest exhibition, The Tree Show, arriving nearly four years after his hugely successful Blood Show.

“I enjoy remaining an underground person,” Ryden says during an interview at his L.A. studio. “It’s strange, though. People in the ‘real’ art world have no idea who I am, even though thousands of people know me.”

A “lowbrow/pop surrealist” artist alongside such figures as Joe Coleman and Gary Baseman, Ryden graduated from Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design in 1987 and began doing commercial album-cover art for the likes of Michael Jackson, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Oingo Boingo, Ringo Starr, and others. In 1995, he art-directed a videogame, 9: The Last Resort (similar to Myst), which, while unsuccessful, put him in contact with the likes of Robert De Niro. The actor has since become a collector of Ryden’s work, as have Marilyn Manson, music wiz Danny Elfman, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Courteney Cox, among others.

Then came The Meat Show, followed by Bunnies and Bees and Blood Show, all insanely lucrative, placing Ryden squarely in front of the lowbrow movement, precisely because he’s been the most business-savvy among them. Then, in 2004, something unexpected happened. The Frye Art Museum in Seattle and the Pasadena Museum of California Art held a joint exhibition of some of his collected works, titled Wondertoonel.

“Mark was the best attended exhibition to date, and the catalog sold like hot cakes,” says Robin Held, chief curator at the Frye, which opened in 1952. The Pasadena show was, according to museum director Wesley Jessup, “one of our most successful.” However, some museum board members were, “not comfortable” exhibiting Ryden, he says. Some complained he was “too obvious” or that there was “not enough subtlety” in his work. Others expressed concerns that Ryden recycled his work, or that he wasn’t a “serious artist.”

Harry Carmean, a former instructor with Art Center for 43 years and a master figure painter who taught while Ryden attended school, addresses those reservations bluntly. “Museums don’t know shit,” he says. “Hell, at the Louvre you’ve got to be dead for at least a year to get in! Museums simply follow the trend.”

However, not all museums can recognize trends. Ryden considers himself lucky that he’s even been in two retrospectives.

“Museums don’t really know who I am at this point,” says the artist, “so they haven’t had a chance to reject me. I loved doing Wondertoonel, and I hope to have more museum shows.” Yet most museums and galleries are too focused on the bottom line to know what’s happening on the streets. “All gallery owners go broke eventually,” says Carmean. “These days you need a gimmick.” He cites as an example Margaret Keane, the ’60s painter of doe-eyed waifs whose work is even now firmly entrenched in the popular culture. “That’s a pile of shit. But it’s a gimmick.”

Unfortunately, the prospect of a well attended show that can potentially bring in money and stellar attendance isn’t always enough. “You’ve got to be proven,” Carmean says, and that means selling your work at auction. Then you have a track record. “This is really about elitism in the art world,” says the Pasadena museum’s Jessup. Elitism or not, the irony is that Ryden’s shows sell out. He has a cult-like following of fans, called Rydenites, but he remains unknown in the upper echelons of the art world. When I mentioned to a well known gallery owner that I would be interviewing Mark Ryden, his face went blank. “Who?” he asked. But his twentysomething assistant’s eyes lit up. “Oh, my God. Tell Mark that ‘The Creatrix’ was the best painting I saw in 2006.” Uh, sure. I’ll pass that along.

The Tree Show has something for everyone. From Ryden’s symbiotic relationship with Abraham Lincoln to his love of symbols, numerology, and historical references, to his kitsch diorama, you won’t leave unhappy. Confused, maybe, but art is supposed to make you think. Ryden’s trees are displayed as being both subjugated by and victorious over humanity. “Girl Eaten by a Tree” pretty much sums it up, as a young girl is swallowed by a rapacious conifer. “General Sherman” shows the giant sequoia, proud and affable, with a mild face, smiling above the forest canopy while laughably puny humans wander around at the base.

“I was just attracted to working with trees,” Ryden explains. “Trees, like the giant sequoias, can inspire religious awe in people. Other folks see lumber. These amazing, beautiful living things took thousand of years to grow, and some people want to cut them down, the faster the better.” He shakes his head, then shows me a pamphlet he received in the mail during preparation for his show. “George Bush is trying to allow logging in the protected Sequoia National Forest. It’s mind-blowing.”

Perhaps this is why, in “Logging Truck,” a bundle of recently felled tress are being driven in a semi by someone who looks remarkably like Satan. I ask Ryden if this show conveys environmental themes. He shrugs. He doesn’t like to comment on his work, preferring to let viewers interpret each painting. “The Apology” seems almost touching to me, as a girl in a yellow dress sympathetically reaches out to an upended tree trunk, its roots splayed out, its one eye intently watching her. In “Fetal Trapping in Northern California,” a miniature Abe Lincoln has just pulled a newborn baby, still in its amniotic sac, from a tree as a red-haired girl looks on, bewildered. I can’t explain that one, and I didn’t even bother to ask.

“The show is about our relationship to nature,” Ryden says. “When Christianity plowed over paganism, man was seen as dominant over nature, and we lost our spiritual connection to the natural world around us. The very first deities humans recognized were forest spirits,” he adds. He also gives a nod to Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god, who is portrayed in an installation piece as a weird-looking baby doll ensconced in a treelike case with antlers and a heavily beaded dress.

Ultimately, it’s the public who decides what it wants. At Ryden’s Kohn Gallery opening last Saturday, March 10, a line of people waited 30 minutes to see his latest creations. I asked one twentysomething guy what he thought. “It’s stunning. I mean, this is amazing stuff,” he said as he stood in a second line, this time to get Ryden’s autograph. Apparently the art world can’t see the forest for the trees, but Rydenites can see and experience an inspiring and original artist.

The Tree Show: New Paintings from Mark Ryden, Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 658-8088. Closes April 28. Info: Kohngallery.com or Markryden.com.