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Mark Ryden and the high point of art’s Lowbrow movement

Detail of Awakening the Moon by Mark Ryden

The Gay 90's
Mark Ryden

Mark Ryden's Awakening the Moon is as much sculpture as painting, as much its frame as what it frames. Ryden's ornately carved frames have long been integral to his paintings, decorative windows on a world more Victorian than the Victorians ever knew. But the frame around Awakening the Moon is more architectural than most, an opening on a secret room, a cabinet of curiosities, a shrine.

Inside, a young girl sleeps in a white dress, watched over by a deer, a squirrel, a bird and a fish. The scene is lit by candles above her bed, nine tapers on each side of a mantelpiece bearing the number 99, a 12-sided die with an open eye on each face, an open hand, and a horned baby holding what looks like a cross between a seahorse and a snake. Below, a tessellated tile floor helps complete the illusion of three dimensions, pulling the viewer into another corner of Mark Ryden's world.

Ryden is the best-known artist to emerge from a kind of art known as Lowbrow. As an artistic movement, Lowbrow's origins are in American popular and counterculture from the 1950s to the 1970s, in things like pulp and psychedelic art, hot-rod painting, underground comics, commercial illustration, toys, pin-ups, graffiti, tattoos, surf and skater culture. I would date its arrival to 1994, the year Robert Williams and others launched Juxtapoz magazine, and the year of Ryden's first exhibit in a group show in Los Angeles.

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What most unites Lowbrow artists isn't subject or style, but their lack of interest in the conceptual art that dominated the galleries and art schools of their time. Lowbrow turns away from theory toward emotion, narrative and craft. Every Lowbrow painter known to me goes back before Duchamp, art's line in the sand, for his or her artistic models: to art nouveau, or the Pre-Raphaelites, or the Renaissance. If they have 20th-century influences, they're more likely to be illustrators than gallery artists. Many, like Ryden, studied commercial design; others, like Audrey Kawasaki, tried art school but dropped out. It is a mostly American movement, by origin and practice mostly Californian, though artists elsewhere arrived independently at the same aesthetic at the same time, such as Chris Berens in Amsterdam, or Ray Caesar in Toronto, or Miss Van in Toulouse. Like calculus, art shows up when we need it.

Enter The Gay 90's: Old Tyme Art Show, Ryden's 2010 show at New York's Paul Kasmin Gallery, and now a beautifully designed book that lets loose Ryden's familiar iconography – bees, raw meat, childish girls, grim Lincoln, skinny Christ – in an 1890s landscape, or rather the 1890s as imagined by the 1920s as imagined by Ryden. Like much of his work, it's nostalgia for nostalgia, memories of America's affection in the Roaring Twenties for supposedly quieter times. Like all his work, it is also memories of an earlier time in the life of the individual and the species, a time when we believed everything is alive, "inhabited by gods." The key to understanding Ryden's world is in a tiny note in the lower right corner of a working drawing for the centrepiece of The Gay 90's, the massive Parlor: "Render to mortal eyes the knowledge of an immortal presence in all things." Right down to, and including, Barbie dolls.

Lowbrow hails from a strange cavern of the underground, an alternative art that defines itself by its opposition to alternative art and its attraction to popular culture. These days, the contradiction has grown stranger still, as Lowbrow has itself become popular. Its house organ, Juxtapoz, claims the largest circulation of any art magazine in America. Ryden's 2007 show in Los Angeles sold out before it opened, including a painting of a girl in a tree for $800,000. A cute girl, but still. At the other end of the art mart, my $50 "Limited Edition" portfolio from his Bunnies and Bees show is number 8,638 of 10,000.

There is a sense, however, in which much of Lowbrow and all of Ryden is still not part of mainstream culture, inside or outside the galleries. As Amanda Erlanson points out in the catalogue essay for The Gay 90's, many contemporary American artists like kitsch, but they like it ironically (think Jeff Koons's stainless steel bunnies, or John Currin's nudes). Ryden cherishes his kitschy affections, "elevating them to the status of sacred symbols." And it is that sincerity, whether worshipping Saint Barbie back in 1994 or the Virgin and Child in this latest collection, that continues to sit uncomfortably alongside our post-everything, so-over-it culture, from the highbrow end of the cultural spectrum to all those ironic trucker hats and cardigans in the middle. It might command grown-up prices, but 20th-century art's rebel child is still a child at heart.

Nick Mount is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and the fiction editor of The Walrus.

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