SWEET AND TENDER HOOLIGAN

THE ART OF BEING RYAN McGINLEY

 

By David Greenberg

 

 

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE LET ME GET WHAT I WANT THIS TIME

“I know nothing about cameras.” This is the first thing photographer Ryan McGinley tells me as we sit down to discuss his work at Rosario’s, an after hours pizza place on the Lower East Side. Initially, I’m a bit suspicious. After all, this could be a cute ploy. Feigning primitivism has long been a successful tool for the young American art star. And with all the sudden attention being lavished on this particular young American, playing dumb might be the smartest thing he can do. But when I press him on his lack of technical savvy in his chosen field, I realize that, like his pictures, Ryan seems disarmingly honest. He’s just feeling around in the dark, travelling down a path of least resistance; and with nothing to prove, Ryan’s art is, more often than not, refreshingly free of artifice.

The snapshot has long been the bane of art photographers—just as the child’s finger painting was to Abstract Expressionists. Anything that people think they can easily do can also be quickly dismissed as not real art. Robert Frank was the first photographer to elevate the informal photograph to ‘high art’ status. And if anything, he proved that while anybody could indeed just point and shoot, not everybody could be at the right place at the right time. Documenting the intimate moments of America’s underbelly has become an institution ever since. Along the way, the cult of voyeurism has focused sharply on youth, friendship and, for lack of a better term, partying hard. The two patron saints of this religious establishment have long been Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. They have become what every young photographer hopes to be—successful and uncompromising.

The poignancy of the personal is now standard operating procedure. And Ryan McGinley certainly does know something about that. Casting his immediate circle of friends in recurring roles, McGinley has transformed the snapshot into a hazy cinematic memento of a brutal tenderness. Transmitted to us with soft focus halos, his protagonists become human angels who shine with an inner divinity despite their somewhat dilapidated settings.

The group atmosphere was something McGinley was born into in 1977. Raised in suburban Ramsey, New Jersey with a battalion of seven older siblings, he was always surrounded by the activities of others. He moved to New York City to study at Parsons but the loneliness of graphic design left him quickly unsatisfied. And so he picked up a camera. This intuitive move allowed Ryan to be a social artist. His earliest instincts were to distribute his work as soon as possible. With the sort of naïve energy that youth affords, he published his first book of photos, appropriately entitled The Kids Are Alright, and passed them out equally to friends and photographers he admired.

Overnight sensations usually take ten years; in Ryan’s case it was more like ten months. And while this rapid ascension to the echelons of hip might seem, to the nonchalant observer, cold and calculated, the truth is it was somewhat more accidental. Not that McGinley didn’t have a plan of attack. In fact, he harboured notions for a subtle revolution of style and sensitivity that, while a bit idiosyncratic in approach, valiantly carried on a tradition in American photography that stretches back as far as Thomas Eakins. But it was abundantly clear that these images needed to be seen. And so they kind of just fell into the right magazines.

Observing Ryan McGinley’s career from this point on is a little bit like watching a porno tape on fast forward: there are always those scratchy lines that make it all sexier and more like art. It is so often repeated that in photography the only difference between porn and art is the lighting. By this standard, McGinley’s work would most likely fall under the heading of light smut. But I’d like to think that regardless of the aperture, a good jerk-off pic should fulfil all the same demands as a successful work of art. One category does not simply cancel out the other. Likewise, the appearance of these photos in places like Vice magazine does not simply limit their scope and intent. Quite the contrary, McGinley’s photos work amazingly well in their various presentations. The instant intimacy of a magazine pushes the narrative quality to the forefront; while the large print format (sometimes) helps to fully realize the images’ inherently epic painterly qualities. And of course, there’s the compact sophistication of the book. In McGinley’s debut for Index Books, his photos are free from outside distraction and able to carry on conversations with each other that we so achingly strain to eavesdrop in on.

So what the hell is so special about pictures of somebody’s friends? It’s an important question to ask. In other words, why are these photos so damn alluring? The answer lies in that precarious photographic line between tribute and exploitation; it is in the empathy (real or otherwise) on the other side of the camera. Ryan’s own alleged sensitivity is mirrored in the faces of his alleged friends. One need not look any further than the cover of his book. Basking in the afterglow of excess is sometimes not all it’s cracked up to be. Eric, New York, 2001 is a morning-after portrait that proves this point. Creating a wet bust of an image, McGinley frames a disembodied head in a gentle blue haze. It’s still last night this particular day and the effects of self-medication clearly haven’t worn off yet. The gaze of Ryan’s subject is so open and thoughtful that it’s almost embarrassing to look at. The trust is so implicit in this image—only a friend would look on with so much compassion, or so we think. We are left with an apparently shared loneliness.

As personal as some of McGinley’s photos are, I never get the sense that he’s abusing his privileged position. And while his sense of color and attention to detail calls to mind such luminaries as Wolfgang Tillmans and Jack Pierson, the pathos of his images is singularly his and no one else’s. The ass crack creeping out from the jeans of a friend bent over his pile of cocaine, the softening flash of a claustrophobic elevator, and the bleary red eyes of overindulgence; all of these minute particulars are presented without the creepy sense of decadence so many contemporary artists seem to revel in. Recognizing the utter fragility of his friends, Ryan is helpless to be anything other than a somewhat sympathetic mirror.

If the politics of dancing are a little confusing, the rules of engagement in male bonding are downright mystifying. How straight American guys show affection for each other is so burdened by conditioning that it’s a wonder they can even be in the same room together without a beer and piece of athletic gear to define the space. The boys in Ryan McGinley’s photos are hardly ever explicit. If anything, the eroticism of their proximity is a fiction created in the collective consciousness of a public poised to read sex into everything. But in Ryan’s world we never see the cigarette after. Instead, we are confronted with the ambiguities of post-adolescent male energy. The shared camaraderie of graffiti bombing or skateboarding allows for a specific context in which young men can still be boys. Any hooliganism is rendered beautifully transparent. The photographer’s eye knowingly zeroes in on that precise moment of freedom when one guy jumps on top of another guy’s shoulders, or, passed out, one guy’s hand lingers above another guy’s naked chest; we make up the rest.

  1. STOP ME IF YOU THINK THAT YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE

Covering The Kids Are Alright, McGinley’s first major solo exhibition in the U.S. at the Whitney Museum this past spring (as part of their new First Exposure series), critic Vince Aletti tried to coin a word in his brief essay in the Village Voice: post-gay. Countless people will attest to the fact that I had spent the previous month before Aletti’s article appeared obsessing over my new word so much so that at that crowded moment when I saw Ryan at the opening and was received with open arms, I gleefully toasted the triumph of a “post-gay” sensibility. Meanwhile, Mr. Alletti was conspicuously taking notes, literally over my shoulder. He recognized a good phrase when he heard it. But in an actual point of fact, Mr. McGinley is technically a metrosexual. When I talk to friends of McGinley who knew him as a carefree teenaged skater and snowboard instructor, they appear a bit baffled by his now infamous gay aesthetic. Actor Leo Fitzpatrick remembers Ryan back in the day “before he was gay.” Former roommate Teddy Liouliakis recalls McGinley’s first few semesters at Parsons before he started taking pictures and getting laid (by guys). Writer Amy Kellner explains: “He was quite a Casanova with the ladies, but someone slipped him gay pills and now the Smiths is his favorite band.” A metrosexual, by definition, is anyone who moves to a large metropolitan city and morphs their natural sexual proclivities in order to advance their career. Male models are the quintessential examples of this phenomenon. Most are straight boys who don’t mind “playing gay” for the right campaign. And while I don’t mean to suggest that McGinley is a closeted straight guy, it is, however, quite curious to monitor how neatly Ryan has played his fresh gay hand in the high stakes strip poker game that is the Art World.

Meanwhile, as the Whitney’s publicity machine was running on full power, older critics scrambled to make sense of McGinley’s moment. Holland Cotter, writing for the New York Times, pondered the “same-sex attachments [that] predominate” in the Whitney show. He couldn’t, however, seem to properly discern a distinct “gay style.” Perhaps this was because the specific photo he was musing over, Dan and Eric, 2001,which depicts two guys sleeping together in the same bed, has no gay style: Dan and Eric are not gay. Getting lost in the wardrobe hanging over the bed, the camouflage patterns, the plaid button downs, Mr. Cotter wonders about the “socio-political shifts in masculine self-presentation.” The man has obviously never visited the Supreme skate shop on Lafayette Street. Guys have been dressing like this for years.

And of course there were the inevitable nay Sayers. Eve Ekman expended an almost endless supply of bitterness and contempt for McGinley’s success in her venomous extended dis posing as a critical essay in the New York Press. She spent most of her column space critiquing the crowd in attendance at the Whitney opening and America’s obsession with Reality T.V. Her one bit of quasi-succinct analysis was the claim that McGinley’s work advocates, “an abandoning of skill and intention in photography.” The question of technical skill in contemporary photography must be addressed properly. I believe it’s vital to reconfigure our very notions of quality. And since this is my post-Greenbergian moment, I call it like I see it: a relatively new trend in world art I like to call Graphicism. Some may argue that the time is simply right for a new ism. World Wars are always helpful too. The roots of Graphicism, however, can be traced back to the death of Andy Warhol—which basically drove a final nail into Modernism’s coffin. Within a year Jean-Michel Basquiat would be dead and the New Imagists, Neo-Expressionists and so-called Eighties Artists would be ripe for repackaging. Survivalists like Larry Clark and Nan Goldin have Cibachrome blood coursing thru their veins. If Post-Modernism was once the order of the day, what the hell could ever come after it? As a Graphicist, Ryan McGinley is not necessarily taking photographs; he is making images. The standard by which one would ordinarily judge a photograph are slippery when describing his pictures. This, of course, doesn’t always place McGinley’s work in the brightest light, so to speak, but the inherent value of his art must be seen in terms of the moment and (dare I say) movement to which it belongs.

At Parsons, Ryan was exposed to the newest technologies in graphic design. When he decided to take photographs, the young artist had little interest in developing skills as a printer. Why bother when he had a Polaroid Sprint Scan 4000. “It’s like D.J.’ing with an iPod,” he explained to Carl Swanson, “…nobody can tell the difference.” Working primarily with a Toshiba T4 and a Leica M7, McGinley was able to scan his images, lay them out in Photoshop, and zip off a hundred copies of a book. Making something out of nothing is a distinctly skater mentality. And the computer is the latest instrument of a long-standing DIY aesthetic. Stylistically and demographically, Ryan has more in common with artists like Ari Marcoupolus, Tobin Yelland and Ed Templeton, who all made names for themselves documenting the personalities and personages of an alternative nation of skaters. If anything really happened in last decade of the 20th Century, it was certainly the development of a parallel art world—a place where skaters, underground bands, graffiti writers, DJ’s, tattoo artists, comic book poets and pot dealers all created, bought and sold affordable yet compelling Art.

Ryan McGinley’s photographic protagonists are savvy collaborators who grew up in the same parallel art world. They know who they are and how they most likely will appear. The exuberantly strained face in Lizzy, 2002, is attached to a naked girl’s body floating thru a heavily charged air. Though this image was not created spontaneously, it was generated by a swiftly thrown together concept and shoot. McGinley brought a mini trampoline to a gay bar on Avenue A, asked Lizzy to get naked and jump up and down; Her movements are natural, the setting is imposed. Likewise, Dan Dusted, 2002, captures the absolute helplessness of bum trip. Dan awakened Ryan; he was already dusted. Handing him a blanket and escorting him to the roof may or may not have been the best thing Ryan could’ve done, but at least it was something. And a great picture was birthed—more than most of us get after a horrible night of bad drugs. There are moments, though, when McGinley’s willingness to follow a subject proves most rewarding. Dash Bombing, 2000, is perhaps the greatest illustration of this point. Precariously perched on a ledge, risking his very life, this quintessential sweet and tender hooligan may appear foolish to some, but his heroic dedication to his craft—in this case graffiti tagging—must be acknowledged. And again, McGinley, along with his subject, creates a compelling image, a misty urban landscape, utterly now, yet amazingly timeless.

Now that the prints have been pulled down from the Whitney’s walls, perhaps the hype and jealousy factors will subside a bit. Of course, there a two natural camps that emerge when a new art star is born. There are those who are voraciously eager to dismiss, and, the smaller, yet equally strident collective of people who claim to have discovered the young genius. For the record, when I first met Ryan McGinley in 1998 he threw up on my sneaker. He didn’t have a camera on him and frankly, I’m glad he didn’t. At that time, Mr. Liouliakis was basically bankrolling him and eventually secured the mostly forgotten first version of The Kids Are Alright, in 1999. Then there was Peter Halley, who published him in Index, Gavin from Vice and eventually, John Connelly’s “Bystander” group show in June of 2002, where Whitney curator Sylvia Wolf first laid eyes on a McGinley large color print. And let us not forget Bruce LaBruce, the Canadian filmmaker and photographer who coached Ryan via nightly telephone conversations for almost a year and whose influence can not be overlooked. All of these characters have some rightful partial claim to the mini-meteoric rise of Ryan McGinley. But the burden of success is clearly on our young hero’s skinny shoulders. How he navigates thru the immediate future’s labyrinthine course of an art career is perhaps his greatest challenge. And like one of the heroes of his own photographs, Ryan McGinley is poised to carry his subtle revolution of style into mainstream consciousness. Free from the histrionics of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, this photographer shows us a beauty idealized by its own prosaic tenderness. And as his work looms ever more abstracted, like his midnight skinny dips, we are lucky to inhale, however temporary it may be, such a sweet breath of fresh air.