One of the things I miss about living in Southern California is the amazing art galleries and art community that is found throughout it’s landscape. When I heard a few months ago that Mark Ryden would be showcasing his The Gay 90s: West exhibit at the the Kohn Gallery from the beginning of May through the end of June this year, I hoped beyond hope that Steve and I would be able to see it in person on our trip to visit friends and family at the end of May.
We barely made it, making a pit stop at the Hollywood gallery 30 mins before closing on May 27th, on our way to dropping off our rental car and getting to LAX for our flight home to San Francisco. Read on below for my personal review of the exhibit, my thoughts on Ryden’s art (fair warning: I’m a fan), and for visual inspiration and detailed shots of his work.
I first found Mark Ryden’s work online while I was still in high school, around 2003 to 2005. His work is highly rendered and imaginative; a world within itself. What I love about his work is the stillness in his subjects, while everything around them is a mixed bag of symbolism and popular iconography.
In 2008, I saw Ryden’s The Creatrix (above), at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, CA. His piece was part of The Land of Retinal Delights, a show that Juxtapoz Magazine put on, including over 150 lowbrow, surrealist and pop artists. I’ve seen the image of the painting online for years, but never expected it to be so absolutely breathtaking in person – partly for its massive size (it’s over 9 feet tall), but for the elaborate detail and mastery of content, form, brushstroke & even within the elaborate hand carved frame Ryden designed himself. It was an overwhelming and moving experience, one that I’ve carried with me ever since.
I stood in front of this painting for so long, I honestly couldn’t tell you how long my gaze lingered on every little detail; every pearl, every beetle, on the jellyfish, Santa Clause, astronaut baby, dinosaurs, beehive, florals, violinist, sky, perspective, The Creatrix herself. Her eyes, her stance, her haunting stare and beauty. Tears were brought to my eyes. I had seen so many master’s work in galleries, and yet none of them brought forth the emotion I felt while standing in awe of this piece.
Since that time, over the past 6 years, the opportunity to see Ryden’s work in SoCal again never came up. So, when I heard he was exhibiting at The Kohn Gallery this Spring, I hoped beyond hope that I’d be able to see it. Opening night came and went, and as articles and celebrities, friends of mine, and other artists I admired posted pictures on Instagram and Facebook, I sat at home wondering if I’d be able to experience his work another time.
My husband and I took a trip down to SoCal at the end of May, and like usual our 5 day trip was packed with seeing friends and family we haven’t seen since New Years. I almost forgot entirely about the gallery show, but on our last day remembered and asked if we could make the time to drive out to Hollywood on our way to the airport. Somehow we missed traffic, and arrived at the gallery 30 mins before it closed. I was completely elated, and eager to run in and see as much as I could.
The whole of the exhibition was divided into three separate rooms. The first room was the largest, the walls painted a creamy and rich shade of pink, setting the main stage for all the stars of the show: the massive and intricate oil paintings, portraits, and pieces depicting large headed girls, Pink Lincoln, Jesus, bees, and meat. Though we only had 30 minutes to take in the entirety of the show, I spent the most time in this room, soaking in as much as possible of each painting.
Walking into the pink heaven that set the scene of the exhibit, I was immediately struck by the vast space of the gallery – and the presence Ryden’s work still demanded within it. On the far wall stood the three pieces that have always spoken the most to me: The Tree of Life, The Creatrix, and Incarnation. All three of these paintings, and the main subjects within them, are arresting in their piercing eyes and outward gaze to the viewer (though, the gaze of Ryden’s girl in Incarnation is less of a direct gaze with the viewer, and more of a gaze outward, if that makes sense).
In his piece Katy Aphrodite, his vision of Katy Perry comes to life, with her blue hair, doe eyes, and floral bed of a gown. This piece wasn’t as large as some of the others, but I was mesmerized with the detailing within each flower, in the deer, and other small animals throughout the piece. It’s a serene scene, and the longer I stared on, the more I could almost hear the rustle of leaves, hum of bees, and faint flow of water.
The second room held mainly preliminary drawings and sketches; Ryden’s studies for his paintings, along with a few watercolor paintings & graphite drawings. In the middle of the room stood two pedestals, on which were ceramic figurines, a woman in a meat dress, and Lincoln in a pink suit, pushing a meat cart. What really held our attention in this room was Ryden’s large studies for his The Parlor (Allegory of Magic, Quintessence and Divine Mystery). So much of what I love of Ryden’s work can be found within this painting, and the in-depth symbolism Ryden is able to construct within the scene. His studies, even more so, are like a key on a map, explaining, at least on the surface, what each object and subject in the painting represent.
The third room housed quite the showpieces: on one wall Ryden’s large personal collection of all things “Gay 90s”: posters, records and various memorabilia of the sort, in one corner a listening station and set up for the The Gay Nineties Olde Time Music record, and in the other corner Ryden’s impressive Memory Lane Diorama (seen above in the header image of the post, with me posing next to it, and below, in Ryden’s Youtube video showing the diorama in action). It was fun interacting with the piece as a viewer (it cost a penny to start it), but it was only a penny, and in case you were out, the front desk had a small jar of them to use! The detail in the piece, like his paintings, was immaculate, intensely detailed, and as per usual with Ryden’s work, a little creepy. It felt like a warped Disney ride in miniature, to be honest, but I loved every bit of it.
I wish I could go back before it’s taken down at the end of this month, or that I had more time while we were there to have taken in more of it, but all in all, I’m so grateful that we were able to see it at all. Though I owe a lot of my influence to many artists, Mark Ryden will forever inspire me. His rendering is on par with the great masters (…in my mind at least); Ingres comes to mind, as he is the only other artist whose work makes me weak in the knees. Though I may not pull inspiration directly from Ryden’s subject matter, I admire his ability to weave together so much, to jam pack each piece with oodles and kaboodles full of allegory, story, and random symbolism.
Admittedly, I’m a bit of a symbolism nerd. I have about 5-10 different symbol dictionaries, and in my own paintings I strive to tell a story through visual cues and language. But that whole subject could get me going on and on about my views on illustration and art in general, and I think I’ve written enough as it is today.
What were your thoughts and/or experience in seeing it? There seems to be much dialog and discussion on his work, with many critics coming forth saying his work isn’t really fine art… mainly that his work is lowbrow and laughable. I take issue with that, and feel that at the very least, people should acknowledge his talent, even if they aren’t attracted to his aesthetic style or “get” his subject matter. Regardless, I’d love to hear what your view of his work is – much love!