04.29.10

The King of Old-time Kitsch

Mark Ryden’s paintings of wide-eyed Victorian children, Abraham Lincoln, and grade-A beef wed lowbrow culture with highbrow surrealism. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

Sweet Wishes, an animated short by Mark Ryden and his wife, Marion Peck, offers a succinct insight into the 47-year-old artist’s surreal aesthetic.

The film opens upon an adorable girl, perhaps 5 years old, and her two companions, one being either a baby or a highly naturalistic doll, the other a teddy bear in the sort of luminous landscape you might find in a late 19th-century children’s book.

Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of Mark Ryden's Old Tyme Art Show

There is a flash in the sky. A fairy appears and offers each of them a wish. Suddenly there are cakes and sweets everywhere.

The last sequence shows the little girl, the baby/doll, and the teddy bear vomiting in turn.

Those insidious, damaging sweets! You’ve got Mark Ryden right there.

Ryden—whose charming new show, The Gay 90s: Old Tyme Art Show, runs through June 5 at New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery—was born in Medford, Oregon, and attended art school in Pasadena. He has lived and worked most of his life in Southern California, a famously nourishing terrain for those with vivid inner lives. For years, Ryden made a living as a commercial artist until his work was taken up by Robert Williams, a former member of the ZAP Comix collective, who put it on the cover of Juxtapoz, a magazine devoted to “lowbrow art.” The fit was perfect. And the exposure has led Ryden to be a favorite cover artist for many musicians, including Michael Jackson, who commissioned him to create the art for 1991’s Dangerous.

Ryden’s is a highly subversive art. His technical skills are dazzling, up there with John Currin, but certainly he puts them to the test, steering between twin jagged rocks, sometimes approaching nostalgic excess—death by sugar poisoning—and occasionally nearing a grotesquerie that would propel him into the terrain of H.R. Giger and the Heavy Metal artists.

Ryden’s paintings and drawings seem to pay homage to Fragonard and Ingres at one moment. At another you will be in the proto-surrealist world of the Victorian fairy painters and the frissons of delicious danger to be found in the work of the illustrators of late 19th- and early 20th-century children’s books and fairy stories, like E. Nesbit. And then you can find yourself getting reacquainted with the big-eyed children of Margaret Keane, a powerful and disturbing painter.

Many writers quite overtly mine their childhoods and the landscapes of myth that then surrounded them for their subject matter but relatively few artists do. Or few that will admit it. Mark Ryden does. His work is populated with recurrent characters and motifs. The characters include an Abe Lincoln figure with a stovepipe hat and test-pattern suits, a Jesus derived from the sicklier sorts of religious art and—the dominant recurring figures—young women with child-smooth faces, unvoluptuous breasts and eyes which are clear, but neither innocent nor knowing.

Oh yes, their heads are super-enlarged, as in 19th-century caricatures. Imagine Betty Boop figures reconstituted as heroines from the Jane Austen period. Those in the current show include one riding a two-seat bicycle with Jesus on the back seat and three identical blondes, with baby-blue bows in their hair, reclining on the top of the pink piano that another Jesus is playing.

There is no erotic frisson here. These girl creatures seem neither vulnerable nor predatory, but possessed of some peculiar, possibly dangerous energy. No wonder Stephen King is a collector of Ryden’s work.

Another of Ryden’s girls, a platinum blond, is standing in a kind of Neo-Classic Arcadia of the sort that the late Rex Whistler used to paint. She is wearing a long skirt made from raw meat. Sides of beef, strings of sausages and so forth. Meat is another of Ryden’s leitmotifs. It is never made to look sticky, fatty, or otherwise icky but they aren’t dollhouse meats either. Again you have technical perfection, beauty, disquiet.

You sense that Mark Ryden is biting off a colossal chunk here. Jeff Koons is routinely accused of flirting with kitsch, wrongly in my view, because he does manage to channel the raw energy in these heaving, contaminated fields, but his pieces emerge looking like High Baroque.

Ryden, I think, has other objectives. As does, perhaps, the so-called Lowbrow School, of whom he is a persuasive representative. The contemporary-art world seems to be successfully gobbling up Street art. I can readily imagine kitsch being on the menu—with Mark Ryden right at the top.

Plus: Check out Art Beast, for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

Anthony Haden-Guest is the news editor of Charles Saatchi’s online magazine.