Mark Ryden: Drawing a Dividing Line
By Brooks Barnes
May 16, 2014
LOS ANGELES — Leonardo DiCaprio is an ardent collector of his macabre paintings. Katy Perry refers to his imagery in Twitter posts, and Amanda Seyfried has practically begged to be his muse. ("I’d love for him to paint a caricature of me with blood trickling down my throat and me holding a dead cat," she told W magazine.) That gown of raw meat that Lady Gaga donned on MTV a few years ago? Derived from one of his best-known works.
Yep, Hollywood is riding the Mark Ryden train in a big way.
Whether the art world’s ruling class sees the same brilliance is difficult to judge. Mr. Ryden, 51, has long been admired for his old-master-esque technique, and mega-collectors like Fran¨ois Pinault own his work.
But a lot of art-world tastemakers cringe at his nonironic embrace of kitsch, and a little of that meat he likes to paint — bleeding steaks, strings of sausages, the occasional salami — can go a long way, especially hanging on a living-room wall.
Mr. Ryden’s celebrity following also tends to send art-world noses skyward. What do they know about fine art? "His work is deeply polarizing and easily dismissible, but the worst thing that can happen to an artist is consensus," said Maria Bell, a former chairwoman of the Museum of Contemporary Art here who owns multiple Ryden paintings.
"And the naysayers are wrong," she added. "I truly feel that he is poised to have broader recognition."
Mr. Ryden is definitely making noise. "The Gay 90s: West," his first California exhibition in seven years, opened with a thunderclap at the Kohn Gallery this month, attracting stars like Mr. DiCaprio, moneyed collectors like Ms. Bell, hundreds of Mr. Ryden’s smiley rank-and-file fans and hipster swarms, led by Frances Bean Cobain and crew. About a quarter of the crowd turned out in Victorian costumes (high stand collars, parasols) to reflect the show’s 19th-century theme.
"We have a print of this one hanging in our bathroom," said an excited Weird Al Yankovic, peering at a painting of a googly-eyed girl with a four-armed Santa standing inside her petticoat. (Whether Mr. Yankovic was in costume, it was hard to say.) Meanwhile, the party in the parking lot — this is Los Angeles — rivaled the exhibition itself, with drippy candles providing the only light and attendees clawing at hors d’oeuvres catered by Caroline Styne, a co-owner of local foodie temples like Lucques and the wife of the gallery’s owner, Michael Kohn.
"I hope it’s an egg from, like, an endangered species or something," a woman in a baby-doll dress ditzily chirped before downing an itty-bitty yolk on a triangle of toast.
The exhibition, which runs through June 28 and attracted more than 2,500 people on its first full day, coincides with the release by Mr. Ryden of a limited-edition record, "The Gay Nineties Old Tyme Music," on which musicians (Ms. Perry, the rapper Tyler the Creator, Danny Elfman) offer various takes on "Daisy Bell," an 1892 parlor song better known as "Bicycle Built for Two." "Picture me trying to explain the concept of the Gay 90s to Tyler the Creator," Mr. Ryden said with a shy grin.
Featuring new and old work, the show has created enough chatter to land in the British tabloids, one of which noted that the "Breaking Bad" star Aaron Paul rolled up at the gallery in a blue 1968 Gran Torino. LA Weekly put Mr. Ryden on its cover, rare media real estate for a painter. (Headline: "Like Mark Ryden? Hate Mark Ryden? Maybe You Want Different Things From Your Art.")
The crackle and pop around Mr. Ryden says a lot about the Los Angeles art scene, where celebrities serve as Pied Pipers to a greater degree than in New York. The wild opening also reflected the big-tent nature of contemporary art — there is room for a bit of everything and everyone — and the increasing blur between artistic disciplines: painting, fashion, music.
The sudden hubbub is a bit terrifying for Mr. Ryden, who spends most of his time alone in a cozy studio in this city’s Eagle Rock neighborhood, slowly painting under a magnifying glass. (As in, very slowly: He annually produces about five new paintings, which Mr. Kohn sells for $100,000 to $2 million.) Sitting in the studio on Tuesday, a wisp of smoke rising from a stick of burning incense and the Sneaker Pimps on the stereo, Mr. Ryden said the opening gave him "attention sickness."
While a bit reluctant to reflect on his increasing profile (his first major appearance at auction came last year, when Christie’s sold a painting called "Queen Bee" for $714,000), Mr. Ryden was happy to talk about the imagery that repeatedly seeps into his art. "I like realism you can get lost in," he said. "The kitschy items, which either crack me up or appall me or both, are usually based on things I have collected."
His studio and adjacent home are nothing short of a bric-a-brac museum, with neat displays of tiki mugs, creepy doll heads, seashells and Abraham Lincoln figurines, among many other items he has picked up on eBay and at flea markets. His wife, Marion Peck, who is also an artist, mentioned the TV program "Hoarders" as she ushered me through an overgrown back room.
And the meat?
"For me, it’s a bridge between physical and spiritual," he said. "What keeps our spirit in this world is our meat." He slapped his rib cage a few times. As for Lady Gaga’s appropriation of his meat-dress image, I got the distinct sense that he was annoyed about it, or that he at least would have appreciated a shout-out. "What can I say for the record?" he said, pausing. "It’s flattering to be the inspiration for another creative person."
Mr. Ryden, who got his start as an illustrator of album covers for the likes of Michael Jackson, belongs to a corner of contemporary art known as Pop Surrealism or, somewhat disparagingly, Lowbrow Art — work influenced by comic books, tattoo design, toys, cartoons and other 1950s-to-1970s Americana. "It is skilled, technically beautiful work," said Sharon Squires, a senior appraiser at Jacqueline Silverman & Associates. "But the qualities of contemporary kitsch and surrealist illustration are not to everyone’s taste."
Converting more nonbelievers is part of the reason Mr. Kohn decided to open his new 12,000-square-foot gallery with a Mark Ryden exhibition. "He has had an uphill battle because stylistically his work does not fit into the contemporary lineage," said Mr. Kohn, who also represents artists like Will Cotton and Ryan McGinness. "By going out of our way to present him in a strong way, both by borrowing back major pieces and by making him our first exhibition in our new space, it will certainly prompt some people to look at the work with fresh eyes."
BROOKS BARNES is a reporter in the Los Angeles bureau of The New York Times. Scene Stealers appears monthly.