There is a definite relationship to, you know, John Currin, to Lisa Yuskavage, to Murakami, to Nara, to Barry McGee.”
Shooting Low, Aiming High
The strange trajectory of Mark Ryden
By HOLLY MYERS
Friday, March 16, 2007 - 3:00 pm
Allegory of the Four Elements, 2006 (All images courtesy Mark Ryden and Michael Kohn Gallery)
The opening reception for Mark Ryden’s new exhibition, “The Tree Show” at Michael Kohn Gallery, was six hours long. If you glanced at the invitation beforehand, you might have thought this was a misprint. Six hours? Two is customary. Three is generous. Six, you might be forgiven for concluding, falls somewhere between pointless and pretentious. But then you would be seriously underestimating both the breadth and the fervor of Ryden’s fan base. In fact, the extension was merely practical.
At 3 p.m. on Saturday, midway through the opening, a line stretched out the back door, down Crescent Heights and around the corner onto Beverly. By the time the gallery closed its doors at 6, the guard who’d been hired to manage the flow had counted 2,222 visitors — this in addition to the 220 who’d attended the private preview two nights before. (All those twos make a curious pattern for an artist with a professed interest in numerology.) Kohn associate Samantha Glaser confirmed later over the phone that Ryden himself had been there throughout, milling with admirers and signing autographs. Each time I’d seen them in the course of the week leading up to the show, Glaser and other gallery staff appeared to be wavering between exhilaration and exhaustion, taken aback by the machinations of a network they weren’t used to handling and didn’t entirely understand. Ryden, on the other hand, was clearly in his element. “Oh, he’s having a great time,” Glaser said. “He’s just in heaven!”
The show is a kind of debut for Ryden, or, depending on your vantage point, a departure: his first in a gallery that bears no affiliation whatsoever with the disparate “underground” community collectively known as Lowbrow. (Other Kohn artists include Walton Ford, Bruce Conner and Reed Danziger.) His last dealer, prior to 2003, was Earl McGrath, whose historically “mainstream” gallery took a Lowbrow turn a number of years ago and has shown Josh Agle (Shag), Gary Baseman, Chuck Agro, Andrew Foster and Eric White. In the past, Ryden has shown solo at Mondo Bizzarro in Bologna and Outre in Melbourne, and in group shows at Roq La Rue in Seattle, CoproNason in Culver City (the gallery has since moved to Bergamot Station), Merry Karnowsky on La Brea, and, of course, La Luz de Jesus in Hollywood — all galleries that wear their outsider/underground/post-pop/pop surrealism (whatever you want to call it) credentials on their sleeve. A midcareer retrospective co-organized in 2004 by the Pasadena Museum of California Art and the Frye Museum in Seattle — a show that broke attendance records in Pasadena — began to point the way toward a broader sort of recognition. The show at Michael Kohn, it seems, confirms it: The high prince of Lowbrow — known for his incomparable skill, his often shocking price tags, and his capacity to sell out just about anything — is ready for some attention from the art world.
“He didn’t come to us because he needed to sell paintings,” Kohn told me shortly before the show went up. “He had no problem selling paintings. He came to us because he wanted to be selling paintings to the ‘right’ people.”
Kohn’s slightly guilty inflection on the word right points to the awkwardness at play here: There are significant differences — not only aesthetic but social, institutional and philosophical — between the world of Lowbrow and the mainstream art world, but any attempt to examine these differences tends to bring out the worst in both. Few in the mainstream art world care to look too closely at the elitism of which they’re often accused, just as few on the Lowbrow side care to address the dangers of blind aesthetic populism. So, like feuding siblings they keep to opposite sides of the room, each professing indifference while privately coveting some aspect of the other.
Lowbrow is popular (within a particular range), theatrical, fun and often lucrative. It fosters figuration and narrative — qualities that were, until recently, widely scorned in the contemporary art world — and rewards rather than questions the development of technical skill. Operating largely outside the scope of critical discourse, it enjoys a high degree of freedom. It can afford to be funny, it can afford to be crass. And Lowbrow artists have fans — passionate ones. What mainstream artist can boast of a MySpace group organized “for anyone who has had their life altered by the magnificent and profoundly magical Mark Ryden”? Those in the art world, on the other hand, have access to a kind of prestige that no amount of popularity — or celebrity patronage — can buy. By aligning themselves, more or less, with an established historical trajectory, and playing to the terms of an established critical discourse, these artists forsake a certain freedom but increase their opportunities for serious — and lasting — recognition.
There are numerous artists who enjoy some degree of crossover but few who straddle the divide quite as cleanly as Ryden. Combining the pictorial accessibility of Lowbrow with the weight of art-historical awareness, layering seductive technique over an increasingly mystical conceptual framework, Ryden makes work that plays by both sets of rules, without, impressively, seeming to bow to either.
The Tree of Life, 2006
“These pictures,” Kohn remarks, “are just extraordinarily well painted. And they’re weird enough to be interesting. I’ve noticed among my colleagues — a lot of my colleagues out in New York, who deal with more conceptually based work — that looking at Mark’s work used to be a guilty pleasure. I saw them coming by my booth in the Miami Basel Art Fair and oohing and aahing over this extraordinarily seductive painting. This was not their normal fare but they liked it anyway. Now, little by little, it’s shifting. A guy who bought one of the works in this show collects Diebenkorn and Thiebaud and John Currin and some contemporary photographers — not just figurative work but mainstream contemporary work, and now that also includes Mark Ryden. Now people can finally do it guilt free.”
That Ryden will get the attention of the art world is all but assured: He’s simply too talented, too rigorous and — more to the point — too savvy an artist not to. More interesting, then, is the next question: What does it mean for a serious contemporary artist to be popular?
With his thin brown hair falling now to his shoulders and strands of gray winding through the long, spindly beard that extends from his chin, the 44-year-old artist ( Collapse )