Los Angeles-based artist Mark Ryden expands his singular melding of high and low art, cerebral meditation and pop-culture camp with “The Gay 90s: West,” a new exhibition at the Kohn Gallery in L.A. that’s a continuation of “The Gay 90s: Olde Tyme Art Show,” which took place at New York’s Kasmin Gallery in 2010.
“The Gay ’90s” is a term invented in the Roaring ’20s that refers to the utopian image of American life during the supposedly simpler 1890s—an era untouched by world wars, economic crisis, and urban chaos. Without a trace of irony, Ryden has never shied away from exploring notions of nostalgia and kitsch, and his work always hints at something much deeper beneath the surface. His art is like a fairy tale—cute and comforting one second, provocative and mystical the next.
As the inaugural exhibition at the Kohn Gallery’s new 12,000-square-foot space, “The Gay 90s: West” includes new paintings, works on paper, sculpture, and an installation that will include Ryden’s largest and most ambitious work to date: The Parlor (Allegory of Magic, Quintessence and Divine Mystery), a 96-by-120-inch painting with a wooden frame hand-carved in bas-relief. Older works like Incarnation, 2009 (which predated Lady Gaga’s 2010 meat dress at the MTV Video Music Awards) will also be on display.
Ryden recently took the time to talk about his inspiration for the new pieces, how his process has evolved, and pushing against the boundaries of sentimentality.
DINA GACHMAN: Do you remember the first piece of art you created?
MARK RYDEN: I don’t specifically remember the very first piece of art I created, but I remember many of the earliest things I would make as a child. I liked painting, very early on, even more than drawing. I used poster paint on posterboard. I would copy images that I liked from magazines and books and combine them to make a “collage” kind of painting. In some ways, this is similar to how I work today.
GACHMAN: What compels you to make art, and what were the major inspirations for this new work?
RYDEN: Inspiration is the most valuable commodity for an artist; it is for me anyway. I can’t move forward in any way if I don’t feel a strong spark of excitement or creativity. Sometimes it is very difficult to get things flowing. It’s important to be in a peaceful state of mind, and then I invite the spirits to come into the studio. I don’t stare into a blank canvas or paper. I look through my various collections of books, toys, statues, photographs and other things, and something will trigger an idea. My studio is packed full of things that inspire me. For example, The Parlor painting was inspired by an old Victorian-era shoe advertisement.
GACHMAN: This exhibit is a continuation of your 2010 show, so was the process of creating the work different for each show?
RYDEN: This exhibition began as a continuation of the Gay ’90s theme I did at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York in 2009. I felt I had many more images I wanted to make within this theme. The theme began with the desire to delve head-on into the realm of sentimentality, nostalgia, and kitsch, which are such taboo subjects in the art world. Many artists use sentimentality and kitsch, but they protect themselves by taking on a stance of irony. The world of the Gay ’90s pushes my own boundaries of sentimentality. I like pushing against that boundary with sincerity.
In this new exhibition, I began with the same initial motivation but then the work evolved.
GACHMAN: Did you draw inspiration from new sources?
RYDEN: I began to think more about how nostalgia and sentimentality relate to the whole idea of memory and how our consciousnesses exist in any particular place and time. I became very fascinated by an idea of Eckhart Tolle, who says nothing has happened in the past; it happened in the “now.” Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the “now.” The present moment is all we will ever have. Only the forms change. Someone living in the actual 1890s would have the same feelings of what’s modern and what’s old-fashioned that we do now and that people will have 100 years from now. The forms change but the feelings are the same. I liked how Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris explored this same idea.
GACHMAN: The Parlor is your largest piece to date. What dictates the size of a piece? How does the actual space you’re using influence the work, and vice versa?
RYDEN: Each painting seems to have a very specific size it wants to be. I have even started a painting or two over just because I didn’t like the feeling of the particular image at a particular size. The Parlor needed to be large because I wanted it to feel like a full-size room you could step into. Unfortunately for me, I paint the same way on an eight-foot canvas as I do on a five-inch miniature. I still use very tiny brushes and noodle every square inch. It took me nearly a year to paint The Parlor.
GACHMAN: You’re also doing a site-specific installation at the gallery. Can you talk about that?
RYDEN: One of the main pieces in this show is a large automaton diorama, titled Memory Lane [see video, above]. It is an eight-by-four-foot enclosure housed in a circus wagon-like structure. It is a bustling city street scene full of a combination of altered found objects (toys and dolls), sculpted, and painted elements. In an overarching way, it combines all of the themes and ideas I have been working with. It was a painstaking project that was incredibly time-consuming. I think it is the kind of project a team of people should create, but I prefer to work alone, and so with the exception of some of the carpentry and the mechanical work, I meticulously made everything myself.
GACHMAN: You’ve said that “the world would be a much better place if it centered around a feminine perspective.” Where does that ideology come from, do you think?
RYDEN: As you look back into what has gone on in western civilization, you can see that patriarchy has been the cause of much strife and suffering in our world. It is the masculine dynamic that has caused our society to place money and corporate profit above human beings. It has allowed the earth to be viewed only as a commodity to be exploited. The feminine perspective sees things differently. She sees the earth and all its inhabitants as entities to be revered and cared for. She sees individual human beings as more important than the relentless advance of capitalism and competition. It is my hope, perhaps indirectly expressed in my work, that the divine feminine is reawakening.
GACHMAN: Queen Bee is so striking, and it reminds me of one of my favorite paintings of yours, The Debutante. Both figures are doll-like, but at the same time so powerful. You’re influenced by Ingres’ work, so what is it about his portraits that draws you in? What do you get from his paintings, both as an artist and as an observer?
RYDEN: There is a subtlety of expression that gives life to the portraits of Ingres. The figures depicted seem to have a soul that transcends the physical paint on the canvas. For me that is a worthy and lofty goal: to make one’s art come alive.
GACHMAN: I would love to hear about your daily practice, and how it has changed and evolved over the years. Do you still sometimes paint using a magnifying glass? Are there any other tools or techniques you’ve incorporated into your work?
RYDEN: My painting technique has not changed that much over time, although perhaps I am painting tighter and with more detail, in spite of a desire to loosen up and paint more expressively. One thing that has changed is my daily routine. I used to paint quite late into the night. It was a time I felt the creative spirits most active. As I have aged, my circadian rhythm has changed. I like to paint early in the day when I can avoid falling into the soul-sucking email world. Early dawn feels very similar to late night.
GACHMAN: How do you know when a piece is finished? Have there been any pieces that have been particularly hard to let go of?
RYDEN: There is a definite moment when a work congeals and crystallizes. Once I am finished with a painting, I am happy to send it off into the world so I can get to work on the next one.
GACHMAN: What’s the most challenging aspect of creating art for you?
RYDEN: The vast amount of time it takes to make my paintings is very challenging. I have so many exciting ideas I would love to bring to a final painting, but my time-consuming technique limits the number of ideas that get to become a painting.
GACHMAN: How involved are you with the placement of your work in a gallery?
RYDEN: It varies from time to time. I actually find that this is something the gallery is skilled at and sometimes it’s best to let go and just to let them do their job. I tend to micromanage every detail of my career beyond painting. I wish I could let go of more things.
GACHMAN: You love flea markets and finding great treasures in rummage sales. Are there any recent finds you’re excited about? Or anything that specifically influenced these pieces?
RYDEN: In my exhibition I will be including a large collection of printed ephemera that I used as inspiration for this body of work. It will include postcards, photos, matchbooks, music sheets, magazines, and records. With a little bit of close observation, I think you can see the initial inspiration for many of my works.
GACHMAN: The nostalgic aspect of your work has been discussed often, and you can see it in “The Gay 90s: West.” Some people seem to think nostalgia is a bad thing—too sentimental, as you said—but I think there’s something very comforting in it. One hundred years from now, what artifacts or pieces of clothing or objects do you think people will hold up as a signifier of our time? What objects would you paint a century from now?
RYDEN: I often look around me and think about this specific place in time, and what things will endure and become objects of nostalgia for the future. Pokémon? Urban Vinyl figures? Superheroes? Vampires? iPhones? It will be the things that resonate with the collective consciousness of this current time.
MARK RYDEN’S “THE GAY 90S: WEST” OPENS AT KOHN GALLERY IN LOS ANGELES TOMORROW, MAY 3, AND RUNS THROUGH JUNE 28, 2014.