By CARLO MCCORMICK
In many ways Ryan McGinley strikes me as one of the hardest working cats in the art world/show business. In other ways he doesn’t because, well, hard as Ryan works it all seems like just a whole lot of fun. Took a while to actually hook up with the guy as he was on another one of his epic road trips. This one was seventy-five days long, a big loop across the country, far down south, way out west, then north and back east. Places we’ve probably never heard of and otherwise presume to be of that generic topography that is America’s homogenized soulless mundane, but visits he makes magical, transformative and filled with wonder in ways that make us all misty-eyed for the fantastical energies of youth. And was he tired, reeking of that degradation touring bands call road-burn? Not at all, in fact he tells us “that’s about the perfect length. Once we went out for three months and that was too long, too intense. By the time you get back everyone is definitely ready to get home.”
Summers are like this for Ryan McGinley, the season when his studio practice gives way to another manner of creative wanderlust. No more highly mediated studio sessions and diligent portrait work but rather more like a traveling carnival, a bunch of guys and gals, models and assistants, roaming about a spirited nature in pursuit of the more radical forms of self-expression that occur when young people take their clothes off and cavort in the wilds. Free-wheeling as it all appears to be, like most of McGinley’s work it is diligently constructed, each trip consuming most of the prior year in planning, research and mapping, every moment, though given over to chance, a choreography precariously but surely balanced between the intuitions and energies of his participants, the vagaries of the land, the whims of the weather from wind and rain to what Ryan calls “the quest for light,” and that alchemical dynamic by which the random invokes the primal logic of adaptability. And it’s no small undertaking at that. Bigger than your typical band, McGinley’s crew this trip was eleven people, with only four of them models (who in turn are switched out at two different points in the journey so that he works with a dozen in total) the rest are assistants given over to the production of what in the end must look somehow simple and effortless.
Personally I’ve never been a big fan of process. Honestly it seems really banal to care about how it is done. There is something about Ryan McGinley’s pictures however that are so redolent of mystery and adventure they inspire a peculiar curiosity, a daydream of ‘being there’ like a child’s wish to run away and join the circus. Who are these beautiful people? They are all creative of course as would be requisite for such a communal anarchy- artists, actors, poets and the like- Ryan tells me I probably know a bunch of them, but it’s not so easy to recognize people with their clothes off. And where are these insanely idyllic and picturesque swathes of pristine nature in that endless strip mall of the United States? No doubt that’s where the six to eight months of full time research goes, but we do get a sense of how remote they might be when Ryan speaks admiringly on the dedication of everyone involved when they have to “hike to the top of a mountain.” He also makes sure to stress that he never has any inclination to photograph in nudist locations- “they don’t want a camera there and I have no interest in that culture anyway.” Rather he describes the group mindset as “very insular, we don’t interact with the outside world,” and maintains “you can get naked anywhere. You’re always trespassing, but we have walkie-talkies.”
Endlessly fascinating as all this may be, to know the tricks and to imagine in this to be part of that feral freedom oneself, we also know that this story is to talk about Ryan McGinley’s upcoming show at Ratio 3 gallery in San Francisco. There’s plenty more minutia we’d love to discover, and surely some great stories from such adventures, but summer is an extra busy time for this artist, not like the casual chat we might have running into one another on the streets of our home town Gotham, but carved out of days more hectic. The morning we talk Ryan is already back out of New York City, upstate shooting some more people in no doubt similarly spectacular situations and has only a while before he has to head out for another day in his high season of meta-agriculture as a cultivator of precious urban weeds let loose upon the natural world. It happens to be August 8th, Andy Warhol’s birthday (he would have been 85 years old), which seems fortuitous as Ryan was photographed lying on a bed in his underwear between similarly de-clad artist friends Dash Snow and Dan Colen for the November 2007 cover story of New York Magazine “Warhol’s Children”. It’s also pretty superfluous, so we just get down to figuring out what Ryan plans to do for his Ratio 3 show this fall.
Being that most provincial type, a New Yorker, we’re pretty curious over why Ryan McGinley would unleash a major body of work and a singular installation in the relatively backwater market of San Francisco rather than say his New York venue, Team Gallery. Like a lot of us, Ryan loves San Francisco almost as much as we hate Los Angeles, but it also turns out that the guy who owns the gallery used to work at the Whitney Museum when McGinley had his show there. In fact it seems that when Index Magazine (an adventurous and influential publication launched and bankrolled by art star Peter Halley) put out the first book of Ryan’s photos, he was the one who put it on the curator’s desk to look at. Such loyalties aside, this is now Ryan’s third show with the gallery so it’s well beyond repaying favors at this point, and when we hear his idea, well, it’s commercially challenging enough that we’re reminded why we do love San Francisco so very much. The global art market capital that is our town brings us many riches, but they are precisely that, founded on the precepts of value and directed wholly towards the best ways of monetizing that value. McGinley’s plans are counter-intuitive to the means by which we make art precious to an extent that most New York dealers would probably deem foolhardy.
The images that will make up McGinley’s Ratio 3 show constitute, by his measure, three years work. All shot in his Lower East Side studio they are perhaps not his most celebrated body of work, less uniquely his than the photographs he takes of nudes outdoors, but are just as much ‘signature’ pieces and represent a serious and sustained endeavor. A compendium of friends, acquaintances and odd individuals whose looks and/or personality happen to engage the artist’s fancy- and in the downtown demimonde of the city these are very much overlapping terms- the extended duration and consistent productivity of these studio portraits now proffers a pretty monumental mass of pictures. To get a sense of just how much we might see consider how Ryan broke it down for us: “The portraits are of people who live in New York or are passing through town. I do it for two days solid every month, a person an hour, ten to a day, so twenty total each month. For me it’s a way to shoot in the studio and to interact with a bunch of different people.” The math on that is kind of daunting, hard to imagine showing let alone looking that much, but McGinley breaks it down to “about four hundred different models, and over five hundred photos in all.”
By such a count of work to be included in a single exhibition, well into the hundreds rather than the typically preferred inclusion of just a few carefully selected pieces, McGinley’s project becomes much less about a photography exhibition and far more about an installation. Dizzying as this is to consider, the spectacle of such an onslaught promises to be nothing less than completely overwhelming. The concept upon which this onslaught hinges, an urban aesthetic that is decidedly of the ‘more is more’ variety, stands in funky opposition to precious presentation of the white cube. Eschewing such traditional niceties like curatorial editing, breathing space between works, frames, price lists and other manner of individuation by which the importance of a single piece is meant to stand out, as Ryan described his intentions to us: “The installation is going to be one piece, a single installation with over 500 photos all wheat-pasted onto plywood panels affixed to the walls. Asymmetrical and random it’s going to be like how ads are wheat-pasted on the streets of New York, and I’m having them printed by the people who print the ads. It’s going to run floor to ceiling and will have all the imperfections of bubbling paper and running glue that you get on the streets.” Most aptly, the show is titled “Yearbook”, as in a high school yearbook, for as anyone will tell you, the social circle around Ryan’s studio as dances before his lens constitutes a pretty definitive registry of Downtown New York at any given town, to which he adds “it’s going to be lots of characters, a way to tell the story, which is the best part.”
This article is selected from SFAQ Issue 14.