Mark Ryden's newest work is a vintage paint-by-numbers portrait of a young girl -- or it was before Ryden re-imagined its subject to show her holding a baby that appears to be growing out of a sweet potato.
The gallerists selling it, Jan Corey Helford and Richard Helford, couldn't be happier. "This one is the holy grail," Corey Helford said, pulling it from stacks of altered vintage paint-by-numbers pieces the couple will auction off over the next week from their Culver City gallery and via eBay. "This will get lost," she said, cradling it to her chest as she left the room.
Ryden's work is part of "Charity by Numbers," a benefit show that opens tonight at Corey Helford Gallery. More than 100 artists participated, including some of the most recognizable names of the underground. Among the revisionists are Gary Baseman, Todd Schorr, Gary Panter, Tim Biskup, Camille Rose Garcia, Shag, Clayton Brothers, Shepard Fairey and Miss Van. The result: cheerfully kitschy Americana with subversive pop sensibilities.
The project began as a whim that the Helfords, along with co-curator Baseman, ended up taking quite seriously.
"I had bought these two paint-by-numbers pieces of ships. I just thought they were kind of cool; I did these when I was a kid," Bruce Helford said. "Then Jan said, 'Wouldn't it be really weird if we got people to paint over them?' "
They approached Baseman to gather talent. Given his influence, thick address book and the fact that the auction is to benefit the Alliance for Children's Rights, a legal and advocacy group for abused and poor children, they attracted art world stars and emerging talent.
Most of the artists incorporated idiosyncrasies from their own styles into the often-pastoral settings of paint-by-numbers. The pairings can be cheeky, such as Natalia Fabia's enormous glitter-spackled shark rising from a pristine lake, or political, as in Sarah Folkman's avenging angel of death in a bullfighting ring.
"Paint-by-numbers were very popular in the '50s, when people were more optimistic about life and nature," said Garcia, who littered a sunny landscape with outsized bottles of poison. "They represented a glorious future. It was fun to take that and impose social commentary on it."
As much as the pieces show popular artists working in a particularly hokey setting, they also give a taste of L.A. underground aesthetics.
"This show is a way of showing the whole world what's going on in L.A., that it's a really helpful and supportive community," Baseman said. "I spent all of last year traveling around the world talking about how artists are mixing media in L.A."
Many of the artists, including Schorr and Audrey Kawasaki, infused the paintings with pop references, such as Disney iconography and manga-inspired waifs. Baseman sees those bricolages as a natural outgrowth of living in a media-saturated environment. "I've painted on old Girl Scout calendars and Chinese prayer books," he said. "In such an explosion of media, whether you tag a wall, have a piece in a museum or make a product, it's not selling out, it's selling."
Bruce Helford, a producer of "The Drew Carey Show" and "George Lopez," said that the relatively unpretentious attitude of Los Angeles' art community was a huge factor in making the paint-by-numbers project possible.
Underground art's "heart is in Los Angeles," he said. "In New York the old guard still has hold. This is the next fine art movement. We want to be the Medicis and let these guys work around the clock."
Some of the pieces will be available for purchase at the opening tonight, which is by invitation from 6 to 9 p.m. and open to the public from 10 to midnight. The remainder of the works are to be auctioned via eBay, through Feb. 17.
"There's something sad and charming about any kind of craft," Garcia said. "It represents someone's leisure time that ended up discarded and forgotten. But it's kind of sweet too."
`Charity by Numbers'
Where: Corey Helford Gallery, 8522 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: Reception open to the public 10 to midnight tonight; online auction
through Feb. 17
Contact: (310) 287-2340; www.coreyhelfordgallery.com