Ryan McGinley: Some Bold Seer
by David Rimanelli
“Very early in my life it was too late.” —Marguerite Duras, The Lover
“You’re gonna regret not texting me back when I drop this selfie.”—@badgalriri
What’s more thrilling than the beauty and energy of youth? What could be more compelling than bearing witness to the sex and death drives merged together in the specific type of reckless abandon that can only be realized by bodies unencumbered by the anchors of time? It is a freedom that, once found, moves inexorably towards the future and inescapably towards loss—at the height of our charms we are, after all, edging towards the precipice of terminal decline. Consider a picture of yourself when you were young and thought you looked your best, or your happiest, or one reflecting a moment of intense aspiration and ambition, a feeling that happiness and success were realizable. Maybe some people get it; most decay into indifference and boredom, or worse, crash into misery and madness. Every picture of a young beauty is a picture of a corpse in potentia. Tear off the luscious fuckable flesh and display the filth of rot and bones because we’re gonna party like it’s 1348—the Black Death. That creepy prince is having a ball at his castle in the hills. Definitely struggle for an invite because it’s the last party you’ll ever attend, the last one that matters.
Though often regarded as an artist whose work is characterized by its relationship to contemporary youth culture and its attendant beauty, Ryan McGinley’s work also examines precisely the opposite. This is perhaps particularly evident in McGinley’s photographs of gorgeous redheads because of art historical precedent: the prototype for all of them, regardless of what they’re doing or what sort of expression crosses their faces, is Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52), the ultimate beautiful dead ginger girl. McGinley’s photographs have a savor of necrophilia, crazy as that sounds. Or, maybe, not so crazy—“counterintuitive.”
Millais’s contemporary John William Waterhouse painted another anguished though still briefly living beauty in his painting inspired by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1833 poem “The Lady of Shalott.” The painting (1888; pg. 8), which is named after its subject, illustrates the following lines from Part IV:
And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance —
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain,
and down she lay;
The broad stream bore
her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.
Tennyson was, among the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an especially prized source; Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Hunt illustrated the 1857 edition of Tennyson’s works, and Waterhouse’s painting on poor Elaine of Astolot, or rather the Lady of Shalott, was the third inspired by her. Demonstrating a nineteenth-century (and particularly Pre-Raphaelite) preoccupation with medievalism and Arthurian legend, the poem details the story of a young and beautiful woman cursed to regard the outside world only as it appears in reflection from a tower that overlooks Camelot. It is the appearance of Lancelot in her mirror that causes her to reflexively turn her head and look directly out of her window—a gesture that at once renders her both free and moribund. Understanding at once that the curse has been set in motion, she flees her tower and runs towards a small boat upon which she writes her name. Drifting down a river in pursuit of Lancelot and finally presented with the romantic possibilities of the outside world, Shalott dies.
As Bram Dijkstra writes in Idols of Perversity:
Late nineteenth-century painters
loved Tennyson’s combination of
incipient madness, self-destructive,
passive yearning, and a beautiful
dead woman floating downstream.
William Holman Hunt,
for one, did all he could to catch
the nuances of the poet’s affecting
narrative. Working diligently
on various versions of this theme
between 1850 and 1905, he
depicted the Lady of Shalott at
the moment her “mirror crack’d”
and the “curse” of passion came
upon her, a mad longing to merge
with the image of Lancelot whipping
her body into a frenzy, and
causing her hair to stand on end
as if charged by the electric shock
waves of her need.
The Lady of Shallot suggests, quite literally, the idea of drifting away, the seepage between youth and death, the edge between madness and desire; it is an investigation of a strange form of temporality that is simultaneously languorous and hurried. This series of compatible contradictions is one of the cornerstones of McGinley’s practice, and his images often thrill us precisely because they depict the ambiguity of dialectical margins. Fraught with out-of-frame peril (nude bodies hurtling from great heights, confronted with a rush of rapids, set adrift in endless oceans), McGinley’s work feels ultra-alive because it is so very very close to death. The work Starry Eyes (2013; pg. 207), for instance, depicts a young woman crouching nude in a pool of water with the flash of a firework falling over the foreground. The embers are captured at the precise moment that they drift over her face, rendering her eyes two bored golden holes. The ecstatic sex/death paradigm that McGinley presents us with feels akin to some kind of Dionysian rapture— is this woman going to fuck you or kill you? McGinley’s conscious reference to this type of ambiguity repeatedly reinforces in his work a particularly nineteenth-century understanding of the relationships between beauty, sex, and death. Taking its cues from the laudanum-fueled sexual madness of Bronte’s Catherine on her deathbed, from Edward Munch’s ravenous vampire, and from Waterhouse’s The Siren, McGinley’s Starry Eyes is thematically charged with all of the dichotomous elements that informed the fin-de-siècle femme fatale: an archetype developed in tandem with that of the Angel in the House, a warning against the dangers of liberation.
The most vivid and the least moribund photography of our time is typically closely allied with pop culture and fashion, and as such it inevitably carries at least an underlying camp electroshock. In the video for Rihanna’s We Found Love, we discover immediate evidence of McGinley’s cultural vitality. Not only is the artist’s hand evident in director Melina Matsoukas’s aesthetic treatment of “landscape,” but it is likewise immediately locatable in the video’s conceptual treatment of youth, recklessness, hope, and loss. The video, which contrasts anemically lit interior spaces with full-bleed expanses of grassy fields and exploding fireworks, quotes the traditional gestures evident in McGinley’s frames. The juxtaposition of the video’s imagery with the subtext of the song—that moments of perfection and beauty rest hidden amid the wreckage of our lives—reference the underlying duality evident in all of McGinley’s photographs: this moment has passed, let’s remember its death forever.
The hopefulness of the hopeless place, in McGinley’s case, is couched in his utopian unification of nature and the youthful body, a place where wilderness and human desire meet on equal ground. Our response to these photographs is dependent on our understanding of their very improbability; much like Shalott is cursed and sucked into her death as the direct result of her desire to believe in freedom, so are we compelled by McGinley to contemplate the possibility of happy lives and happy endings. The subjects of these photographs are, however, already gone, inching incrementally away from their images as depicted in print as soon as the aperture closes.
For an artist so seemingly relentlessly contemporary and now, McGinley’s work is steeped in the sensibilities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: on the one hand, the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic and weltanschauung, and the other, Pictorial photography. Emerging during late nineteenth-century debates regarding photography’s role in science and art, Pictorial photography sought to imbue a medium previously utilized as a means of pure representation with the seriousness of intention and vision accorded the fine arts, using formal devices characteristic of the painting of the time. The early exemplar of this movement, Henry Peach Robinson, refused the decisive moment of the single camera exposure, and instead chose to compose his images from many individual negatives, each one a carefully staged scene. Later, Pictorial photography would soften in the outlines of photographic images in an attempt to emulate the softness of charcoal drawing or impressionist painting, but Robinson’s images retain the impossibly precise detail of large format photographic negatives. Robinson’s “combination printing,” with its image clarity, deliberation in composition, and photographic believability, is most evident in Fading Away, his most famous image. This haunting work, created from negatives of diverse figure groups, scandalized the audiences of its time for its convincing portrayal of a beautiful young woman at the moment of her death, her sickbed surrounded by devastated onlookers, a subject which is hardly uncommon to paintings. The sense that photography can insert itself in some genuine way between life and death remains overwhelming even now, and McGinley’s awareness of the photographer’s ability to strengthen this effect through art-directorial dabbling is rooted in these earliest Pictorial traditions.
Robert Demachy, a leading figure in the French Pictorialism movement, was keenly invested in affirming photography as a fine art distinct from amateur and commercial photographic image making. Demachy was specifically focused on the development of nonstandard processes, chief among these the implementation of gum bichromate, which allowed the introduction of color and brushwork into the photographic image. The orange pigment present in Demachy’s roseate Struggle (1903; pg. 10) is meant to evoke sanguine, a reddish chalk often used in life drawings. The coloration, texture, and formal composition of the image could easily be mistaken at once for a McGinley. Sand Rollers (2013; pg. 15), for example, although produced more than a century after Struggle, bears all of the hallmarks of its ancestor—the reddish color, the aching torsion of the figure, the hands buried in or scratching witch-like at the chthonic soil.
McGinley’s work gains force from the sensation of immediacy, and yet he follows the trajectory of the photographic medium itself by enhancing spontaneity through formal means. Jacques Lacan, a scholar of the tragi-comedy of misrecognition and illusion, was not long satisfied with reflections, and he insisted on the role of signifiers and of words, making a sequence of arcane graphs to diagram the pathways of desire (right). The graphs are marked by leaps and falls, not unlike McGinley’s fireworks; they begin at the bottom right, then head up to encounter a chain of signifiers, slowing and arcing back down and to the left. As they fall back to earth, they encounter the chain of meaning once more. The process of engagement with McGinley’s figures echoes this template, the energy of the unconscious the beauty of nature, the pictorial, but it’s a temporary set up: as soon as there is movement, a series of encounters with the limits of language begins.
McGinley’s subjects leap, their grace captured by a photographer; we never see them fall. Along Lacan’s graph, the chimeras of the ideal ego wait on the right, and the ego ideal stands to the left. The men and women who populate McGinley’s images are flawless: you want to be them, to possess them, you want them to want you. As Slavoz Zizek interprets the structure of fantasy in The Sublime Object of Ideology: it is the answer to the question, “Che vuoi?” or “What do you, the Other, want of me?” When he continues— “In the fantasy scene, the desire is not fulfilled, ‘satisfied,’ but constituted (given its objects and so on)—through fantasy we learn ‘how to desire,’”—he might be describing this very body of work.
Zizek completes the picture: “Sharpening the paradox to its utmost—to tautology—we could say that desire is a defense against the desire of the Other, against the ‘pure’ trans-phantasmatic desire (i.e. the ‘death drive’ in its pure form). This third graph in Lacan’s schema remains open; two arrows curve upward into nothing, and the space between them is labeled “desire.” “Che vuoi?” It is the question of one who suffers from anxiety; where does anxiety fit here, when fearlessness appears to be what is signified? But then the expiration date on that perfection becomes the signifier of an impossible gap between utterance— perfection, and uttered—death.
“In front of the photograph
of my mother as a child, I tell
myself: She is going to die: I
shudder… over a catastrophe
which has already occurred.
Whether or not the subject is
already dead, every photograph
is this catastrophe.”
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography
Blue Flip (2012; pg. 61): a man’s body hurls improbably through space, either towards or away from an evening sky. This form, hovering for eternity, reflects back at us, as all floating signifiers do, a rapidly cycling series of possibilities. As in Waterhouse’s depiction of Shalott, what we do not see, cannot see, is what awaits the subject at the edge of the frame. Is this the literal death of Tennyson’s heroine, or simply another example of Barthes’s photographic catastrophe? Are these two places, ultimately, precisely the same? The cosmetic appeal of McGinley’s surfaces trap, or rather stall, our gaze—a blazing sky and a young body, the imperfect beauty of a surface wound, a flash of fireworks or a tumble-down hill, and all of these elements disguise the subtext of loss that echoes throughout the artist’s work. Distracted by Millais’s spray of forget-me-nots and poppies, we lose track momentarily that we are witnessing Ophelia’s death scene, that she has floated away, that she is gone as soon as we have found her. McGinley’s subjects are likewise lost to us, never the same as they are at the moment of our meeting, hurtling through time at the same moment that they are trapped in space.