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Cartoon Realism with Little Thought
by David Pagel
Saturday, May 17, 2014
If Main Street U.S.A. seceded from Disneyland, spun off a greeting card company and hired Tim Burton as CEO. its products might very well resemble Mark Ryden's paintings, drawings and sculptures at Kohn Gallery.

A niche-marketed mixture of half-baked nostalgia and palatable nastiness, "Mark Ryden The Gay 90s: West" blends Kewpie-doll cuteness and "Edward Scissorhands" weirdness into a sickly sweet stew that's amusing to gawk at but does little to sustain second looks, much less lasting thoughts.

With pink walls and a 25-foot ceiling, the main gallery has the presence of a famous museum as it's remembered by a kid who could not have cared less about the art in it but was impressed that some adults were impressed by the grandeur.

That sense of detachment — of second-hand sentiments — plagues Ryden's 13 paintings, all of which come in extravagant, often hand-carved frames. It runs through his drawings, takes saccharine shape in his porcelain figurines and reaches its cheeky high point in his coin-operated diorama, where miniature misfits parade through a small town inhabited by characters from nightmarish fairy tales.

Although Ryden paints illusions like nobody's business — rendering figures as if you could reach out and touch them — most seem to have suffocated in an airless world. The surfaces of his oils on canvas and panel look embalmed: nicely preserved but utterly lifeless.

That's because Ryden paints as if the 20th century never happened, at least artistically. Forget about Impressionism, his cloying pictures of bobble headed bimbos, a piano-playing Jesus and a plaid-suited Lincoln scream. Ditto Fauvism, Dada, Cubism, Expressionism and every other modem movement, except for the blandest strand of watered-down Surrealism.

Ryden's cartoon realism takes viewers back to the last gasp of the French Academy, when William-Adolphe Bouguereau was churning out lascivious pictures of doe-eyed children and frolicking maidens whose sexual appetites scared off satyrs.

As a painter. Ryden compares unfavorably to Norman Rockwell, whose art is far more progressive. The same goes for Jackson Pollock, whose paintings are far more generous. Ryden's real peers are Thomas Kinkade and Robert Williams: painters whose naked sentimentality and cynicism map the moves Ryden makes in his warmed-over mishmashes.

Kohn Gallery
1227 N. Highland Ave., (323) 461-3311
through June 28, 2014
Closed Sundays and Mondays.
www.kohngallery.com