by Max Blue
Ryan McGinley’s brand of spontaneous film photography for the Internet age has been highly praised from early in the American artist’s career right on through the present. There is a disposable camera urgency to the photographs in his first series, The Kids Are Alright, which debuted in New York in 2000 and subsequently travelled to the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2003, making the then 25-year-old McGinley one of the youngest artists ever to have a solo show at that museum. He has since enjoyed success in other areas of his practice with a host of short films, advertising, and editorial work, photographing such stars as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and fellow “it” artists like Petra Collins.
Where The Kids Are Alright, resembled Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency (shot in upstate New York rather than in Goldin’s downtown Manhattan), McGinley’s practice has tangibly matured in the 15 years since his debut. The artist’s latest solo exhibition, Paradiso, at Ratio 3 in San Francisco, is a significant step forward in his aesthetic growth. At every stage of his career, McGinley has become an increasingly focused, making more (and more careful) choices in composition and palette. His 2012 series Animals was concerted move in that direction. The studio images, depicting models posed with animals, represent the first inklings of a shift away from the “grab-shot” spontaneity of his early work. In the 2015 series Fall & Winter, McGinley returned his models to the outdoors and incorporated the same techniques and aesthetic sensibility. Now, with Paradiso, McGinley continues his exploration of the natural sublime and the human body.
Paradiso is a small exhibition, consisting of 15 mostly small-scale pieces. They no longer document spontaneous teenage road trip photos – at least not in form. McGinley’s content still focuses heavily on the youthful (and sometimes egregiously adolescent-looking) body, set against the backdrop of the great outdoors. And I don’t use the phrase loosely: McGinley’s representation of upstate New York, the setting for the series, is often infused with a sense of the sublime, a vastness present in the natural world that literally overwhelms the senses, dwarfing their ostensible subjects. In Knotty, for example, a pale, androgynous figure is seen frolicking through the dense underbrush of a seemingly endless forest. The ivory flesh, set off against the autumnal coloration of the foliage, provides the only clue that there is a human in the picture, included, perhaps, only to suggest a sense of scale. But McGinley’s subject isn’t running scared, as the notion of the sublime might intimate. The feeling of being overwhelmed stems from the sheer density of visual information conveyed, the grandeur of the surroundings.
McGinley’s Paradiso shares a title with the third act of Dante’s Divine Comedy. So, even before entering the exhibition, the tone has been set as one reminiscent of classicism, aided and abetted by the aesthetic influence of the Hudson River School. This is a bold statement for McGinley to make, asserting himself to be in the company of Old Masters, especially when his representation of both body and landscape fall short of those ideals. Take for example the photo titled Pancake, in which the lean, marble-pale body of the male model is caught in a pose undeniably reminiscent of Myron’s Discobolus, albeit tattooed stem to stern. It seems to sum up the working modus operandi of Paradiso: contemporary or unusual bodies set against backdrops of natural splendor in a grand attempt at restating classical aesthetics with a touch of contemporary sensibility, evidenced by bodies that clearly don’t conform to classical ideals. One is plus-size; others sport tattoos, piercings and neon-colored hair. It is this call back to and reflexive push against classicism that is the most striking new element of McGinley’s work.
However, it is an ambivalent attempt, and these themes, grand in art-historical scope, are not consistency realized. Take for example Chloe and Elise (Flowering Dogwood), two fairly conventional photographs of the reclining female nude. Chloe, the more visually complex of the two, depicts a waify figure partially obscured by heavy foliage, a far more complex image than
Richard Kern-esque Elise, an unnaturally posed image of idyllic femininity, out of place within the exhibition. Of all the photos in the exhibition, Elise is stylistically the closest to McGinley’s studio work, and the regression does little to aide his aesthetic advances in Paradiso. And, while Chloe might bring to mind Bernini’s Faun, the far more distinct resemblance is to images from Katy Grannan’s series Mystic Lake; but the deluge of visual clutter and intensified color aren’t enough to set it apart as significantly unique.
The content of the images – youthful bodies and their adolescent innocence – carries forward McGinley’s career-long aesthetic interests: youth-culture, the expression of carefree teenage wanderlust, eroticism, and a fictional free-love world. Meaning, they exist outside the one most of us inhabit. Unburdened by adult responsibility, they leap, dance, and sprawl across the landscape. When evidence of the “built environment” does creep into these images – e.g. an discarded remnants of aqueduct in Concrete Lake or a searchlight in Flood Light Horizon, in which a light tower, scaled by a muscular naked model, brutally interrupts the otherwise vast panorama – it is always as a plaything for the nymph-like beings shown clambering upon it, or sprawled across it or exhausted from their euphoric revelries.
The sparse presentation of the photographs in this space is also significant. The majority of the images on view measure only 24 inches in the longest dimension, and with only 15 on view, that leaves the gallery feeling almost empty. Clearly, this is intentional and it’s effective. It forces us to ponder differences in scale: between the subjects and their surroundings and between the images and the cavernous space in which they appear. Like any enlarged from a 35-mm film negative, these photos are grainy; however, their degraded quality also recalls low-resolution digital images. It’s hard to look at McGinley’s film-based images without being instantly reminded of the over-saturated, over-exposed images we see on Flickr or Tumblr. In this regard, two photos that come to mind are Flood Light Horizon and Dick & Molly, two instances in which the evidently artificial saturation of the photographs causes them to be glaringly disjointed from the remainder of the exhibition, which maintains a mostly earth-tone color palette. In some ways, this works to McGinley’s advantage, furthering his exploration of the intersections between classicism and contemporary culture. It reveals yet another set of contrasts between the traditional and the modern: the avant-garde body framed by a Hudson River School setting and film photographs edited and printed using digital software.
These are weighty topics, deeply entrenched in art historical reference, but McGinley’s exploration of them does not feel fully realized. Shooting in the Hudson River Valley does not make one a master at representing the landscape. Moreover, the viewer comes away with the sense that McGinley is engaged in a struggle between form and content; but it’s a struggle that doesn’t necessarily open a dialog. It mainly meanders through uncertainty towards grandiose concepts, which often exceed the scope of the work, leaving viewers in the proverbial woods. While the work shows McGinley’s progresses as an aesthete, it fails to address any major concerns regarding body positivity, social norms, or portrayals of industrialization encroaching on the natural landscape. If anything, the work suggests escapism as a catchall solution to any turmoil presented by the modern world. It posits the existence of a divine place, free from burdens or struggles. If the antagonistic turmoil of youth present in his earlier work can be
interpreted as analogous to purgatory and the inferno, then Paradiso is aptly titled; however, the journey is McGinley’s alone.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that the show (the labeling of which encourages viewers to move from right to left) begins with the exhibition’s title image, Paradiso. It shows a male face gazing wistfully into the distance with the same word tattooed on his neck. His expression is one of calm determination; a man striking out alone into the wilderness. The tattoo restates the conflict between classicism (or at least McGinley’s concept of it) and contemporary ideals of the body. The show ends with Algae Ass, a photo that shows a backside stained in algae, the proportions of which are decidedly non-classical. It stands as a reminder that McGinley is producing his most self-aware work yet — even if the butt joke at the end threatens to undermine the seriousness of the themes he deigns to apprehend.
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“Ryan McGinley: Paradiso” @ Ratio 3 through February 24, 2018.
Images: Courtesy of the artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.
About the author:
Max Blue is a Northern-California native and life-long resident, a writer of criticism, fiction, and poetry. He has studied art history and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute.