Mark Ryden wasn’t made for this time. His paintings, which depict a sumptuous surrealism more common in various points of history, play out like Vermeer on an absinthe trip, with the irreverent 1960s freakout humor of Robert Crumb thrown in for good measure. Populated with po-faced pale young girls, meat of every cut, Abraham Lincoln, and the occasional pop star, Ryden’s new set of paintings, “The Gay ’90s,” addresses the artist’s complex relationship to the past.
And it’s a spectacular feat: the inaugural exhibit at Michael Kohn Gallery’s brand new 12,000 square foot art fortress in Hollywood, the show features a room full of large-scale paintings (including Ryden’s largest yet), a portrait of Katy Perry, a peripheral room of drawings, a wall of vintage ephemera bearing the show’s “Gay ‘90s” theme, and a massive automaton diorama called “Memory Lane” that actually accepts a penny and plays the 1890s hit song “Daisy Bell” (the song HAL 9000 sings in 2001: A Space Odyssey) while Lincolns ride by on bicycles and meatmen maniacally slice slabs of flesh. Ryden’s fan following among Hollywood collectors is fervent; at the May 2 opening of his show, the crowd was awash in names like Frances Bean Cobain, Leonardo DiCaprio, Patricia Arquette, Moby, producer Donald DeLine, The Normal Heart director Ryan Murphy, CAA’s Thao Nguyen, WME’s Richard Weitz and the Gersh’s Bob Gersh.
There’s even a limited edition record called “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two)” featuring renditions of “Daisy Bell” by the likes of Perry, Tyler the Creator, Mark Mothersbaugh, and others that will be sold through the gallery and Ryden’s website, the sales benefitting the charity Little Kids Rock, which provides musical resources for public schools. Ryden talked to The Hollywood Repoter about Perry and Lincoln, and why raw meat figures so prevalently in his work.
This is such a big show.
I know. For a while, we didn’t know where everything was going to go.
I noticed people were talking about this show a long time ago. Was it delayed?
Yeah. I did a [Gay ‘90s] show in New York at Paul Kasmin Gallery about four years ago, and I just wasn’t done [with the theme]. Then Michael [Kohn] began acquiring this building, and it was such a long process of getting the building and renovating.
How long did the diorama take to put together?
It was supposed to be a fun, simple project and it accrued into a nightmare really — just the mechanical part of it. [The characters] ride on carts, and I had to have a guy machine all the pieces. It just ended up getting quite crazy.
Was the animatronic butcher the first thing you added?
Yeah. It started with the track, and I knew I wanted a meat shop, and I knew I wanted a distant city, and then everything built from there.
You have a connection to the 1890s. Is it a fictional narrative of the 1890s?
Right. This book here [The Gay Nineties: An Album of Reminiscent Drawings by R.V. Cutler] is what coined the term “The Gay ’90s,” and that came out in the ’20s. So people were reminiscing about their childhoods in the 1890s, romanticizing that time, but then it stuck, this idea of the Gay ’90s, and it was in opposition to the modern era that hit mass culture in the ’50s, but people clung to it, so by the time I was a kid in the ’60s, the Gay ’90s became such a distorted thing. These album covers [depicting scenes from the Gay ’90s] are all from the ’60s.
Especially in the large piece the resistance, “The Parlor (Allegory of Magic, Quintessence and Divine Mystery),” there are a lot of occult things happening — it reminds me of a scene out of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. What’s your connection to occultist source material?
I’ve just always been fascinated by the secret mystical world. It’s something I’ve always been curious about and read about, and it just leaks into my work. People really want me to explain all these symbols, but it isn’t so much what all the symbols mean, but the function of it is more for people to look at and wonder what all the symbols mean.
Let’s take Abraham Lincoln. He pops up all the time in your paintings. And for somebody like me, it’s like, “What’s Abraham Lincoln doing there?” He’s anachronistic for this show; he was long dead by the 1890s.
I obviously get asked that question a lot, and I don’t have a real good answer for it. The best answer is: because it gives you those questions yourself of, “What the hell is Abraham Lincoln doing?” And I like that. I resist, actually, putting in Abraham Lincoln, but I find myself time and time again just not being able to resist it. If you want to have a conversation about Abraham Lincoln aside from why I put him in my paintings, I could talk what I think about Abraham Lincoln. He became like a saint to the country more than any other figure had. There’s something about the power of his face, because he was one of the first famous people to be heavily photographed ever, and he has such a strange face. It just sticks with you. The portrait that used to be on the five-dollar bill, I painted it in this show, and that image, it’s almost like a logo for a corporation. It’s so stuck in your brain. Dalí made a portrait of Lincoln [“Gala looking at the Mediterranean Sea which at a distance of 20 meters is transformed into the portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko)” (1977)] with just pixel squares, and you can break those shapes down to such an abstraction, but everybody knows that’s Abraham Lincoln. There’s just something so powerful, so iconic, about that face.
I know you’ve probably talked it to death, but how did meat become so central to your work?
The very first painting that I ever put a piece of meat into [“The Meat Magi” (1997)], I have no idea why I wanted to. And when I started making paintings, I didn’t consciously think, ‘I’m going to start including meat because this, this, and this.’ It’s just something that I felt myself drawn to.
So you’ve had to reconcile why you’ve done this?
Yeah. I had to look at myself and say, ‘Why do I include meat?’ And I thought about it, and I realized there is this interesting spiritual component: meat is the thing that keeps our energetic bodies in this physical world. I think that’s interesting to see it as meat, because meat is sort of in between. When does it stop being an animal, and when is it just this product? Still, every time I go to the grocery store, and I look in the meat department, and see all this spread of meat, I think, ‘There’s a butchered animal.’ And I actually eat meat! I love meat. I eat meat, but I do not eat McDonald’s. I have to know it came from a good place. Bad, questionable meat gives me the creeps.
Another leitmotif of your paintings are young girls. Why do you feel your world is populated by these waifish little girls, and how did this evolve?
Again, I’ve had to think about that myself and work backwards. My wife actually said something really funny, and I think she’s right, in that they’re sort of self-portraits. They’re anima figures; they’re soul figures. A lot of people can’t get past the sexual part of a girl. For me, there’s truly nothing sexual at all. It’s the soul of the figure. They’re sort of everybody. They’re you when you’re looking at the painting.
In the approximately 15 years since you started showing in galleries, what would you say you’ve figured out about beauty?
I don’t think it’s something you figure out. I think it’s the opposite. It’s something you don’t really “figure out.” You experience it. You know it when you see it.