‘Pseudo-fiction, Myth, and Contingency’, Chris Kraus, 2012
Myth . . . abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them a simplicity of essences . . . it organizes a world without contradictions . . . a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.
—Roland Barthes, Mythologies
Frequently lauded for capturing the essence of a generation, Ryan McGinley’s extraordinary images in fact do something more subtle and deft. Seamless and irony-free, they have created the myth of a generation for whom freedom and possibility consistently trump disillusion and doubt. Flesh may be temporarily bruised, but psyches remain unscarred. In McGinley’s world, the laws of gravity scarcely apply. Fantastic, ebullient, McGinley’s work enjoys an unusually widespread appeal among art world insiders and lay-fans alike.
Today McGinley is best known for dreamlike images of figures in natural landscapes, but his earliest work took place in the shabby apartments and dirty streets of downtown New York. His first major body of work, a series of photographs titled “The Kids Are Alright,” depicts moments from the lives of the artist and his friends on the Lower East Side. They come across as a diaristic chronicle of time spent spray painting graffiti, rolling joints, waking up in closet-sized rooms, having sex, swimming nude, and hanging out. First exhibited in 2000, in a self-produced show at 420 West Broadway, in SoHo—once the home of the Leo Castelli and Mary Boone galleries, the space was temporarily abandoned before the construction of luxury lofts—the photographs attracted widespread attention, leading to a solo exhibition of much of the same work at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art three years later.
The images were hailed for their tantalizing similarity to the work of McGinley’s most obvious predecessors: Nan Goldin, Andy Warhol, and Larry Clark. And yet, there were differences: As one critic wrote of the Whitney show, “[T]he tone is relaxed and playful, as if the world were on recess. . . . The pictures have none of the after-hours decadence of Warhol’s snapshots, nor the grit of Mr. Clark’s work, nor the noirish narcissism of Ms. Goldin’s.” A narrative quickly emerged: Post-AIDS, post-9/11, the subjects of “Kids” were immersed in an underground lifestyle unclouded by imminent doom. While others lamented the corporate gentrification of the city’s once seedy locales, McGinley’s images seemed to prove that it might still be possible to be classless, artistic, and young and have fun in early twenty-first-century corporate New York—margins of freedom were still there to be found. McGinley’s swift move from DIY exhibition to major museum show formed a parallel story of promise: A young artist no longer had to wait a decade or more to receive mainstream recognition. With little formal photographic training and no more than a graphic design BFA, McGinley, at age twenty-five, became the youngest artist to be given a solo show at the Whitney and was anointed an avatar of his generation.
A decisive shift took place in McGinley’s work in the summer of 2003, when a collector loaned the artist a Vermont country house. McGinley installed a skate ramp and trampoline in the yard and began busing friends and acquaintances up from New York each week. Removing his subjects from their “natural” urban environment, he transported them to this bucolic setting, and then instigated large situations and setups that would trigger spontaneous actions and moments. The work became a matter of documenting “real life” as it occurred in highly constructed situations, and the resulting images are more deliberately cinematic.
In 2005, McGinley embarked on a series of annual summer road trips that would result in new bodies of work including “Sun and Health,” 2006; “I Know Where the Summer Goes,” 2008; and “Moonmilk,” 2009. He began formally casting models—not professional models but kids recruited from art schools and cities all over the world—and crew and staff numbers grew larger. Still, traveling around the US for three months, living mostly outdoors and naked, boundaries between McGinley’s subjects, the natural world, and each other seem to dissolve, evoking the halcyon 1970s when, unburdened by debt or career, countless young people simply traveled, and an “artistic life” could be lived without being professionalized.
McGinley’s depiction of young and lithe nude subjects has been read as a celebration of youth, defined by rebellion, vitality, and positive energy. Yet youth—like the body’s unclothed, natural state—can also be read as an absence: a blank slate upon which psychic and physical qualities can be more clearly registered. The exhaustion of Ann (Sand), 2007; the expectantly wistful expressions of Ann (Windy Truck), 2007, Hanna (Blonde Meadow), 2008, and Brennan (Blue), 2007; the black eyes and bruises of Tim (Black Eye), 2005 and Olivia (Sparrow), 2010, would not be as apparent or striking were their subjects encumbered by age or identifiable clothing. His subjects wear their bruises well, like tattoos. Aged bodies are marked by accretion, but Tim and Olivia are still young, and their bruised states are fleeting.
Looking back, it becomes apparent that even the artist’s earliest images are not quite as “documentary” as they first appeared. The artist has described his work as a “pseudo-fiction”—“because it did happen but it might not have happened if it weren’t going to become a photograph.” Instead of reality, he explains, “My photographs are really closer to a documentation of my fantasy life.” The images in “The Kids Are Alright” are iconic: Depicted while living within a familiar bohemian milieu, his subjects are clearly mobile and passing through time. Framed by a late twilit sky and the liquid halation of city lights, the figure in Dash Bombing, 2001, is captured mid-motion, spray painting the wall of a building—echoing later figures who catapult from ghostly buildings (Tom Fall Away, 2010) or gaze wonderstruck toward the sky through a barn door, surrounded by snowfall and Christmas-red lights (Jonas Barn Snow Disco, 2008). Cum, 1999, defies both its title and the 1980s East Village tradition of “transgressive” art by micro-framing smashed droplets that, if abstracted from soft, wrinkled pant folds, could be mistaken for milk.
McGinley’s work can be seen as a series of mythic constructions that have become increasingly artful and conscious over the years. Myths are anomalies: Singular stories, personas, and things that appear to be emblematic, but only because they have paradoxically been abstracted from cause and effect; they appear to us as inevitable and eternal. In Mythologies, a 1957 collection of essays, Roland Barthes found a kind of euphoria in the image of Einstein’s brain—“at once magician and machine”—and in Omo detergent’s artful disguise of abrasive chemicals within delicious folds of white foam. Devised from material drawn from the cultural surface, myths seem to evoke limitless depth.
Framed in the seemingly endless plentitude of time and the natural world, McGinley’s images offered a line of flight from the toxic mediascape of the Bush years, when the Saw films and Hostel, exemplars of the “new sadism,” played at the multiplex. As one critic observed, McGinley’s “vision of golden youth scampering through fireworks or tumbling through the air is exhilarating and determinedly optimistic.” Or, as the artist himself states, “I have no absolutely no interest in creating depressing images.” And this is myth: a conjuring trick that turns reality into enchanting essence. In Days of Heaven, Terence Malick abstracts his subjects from a dire photomontage of industrial poverty to play out a drama against the endless Texas wheat fields and sky.
Myths, according to Barthes, feed on an instant reserve of history that can be called and dismissed: “all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from.” The photographs that comprise “I Know Where The Summer Goes” are gorgeous and dreamy, presenting a group of young people finding themselves over the course of one endless summer, through each other and boundless natural landscapes. In Coley (Running), 2007, a naked boy runs through bleached fields, racing toward a car as if it’s the future.
The iconography is pure Americana: the spirit of Andrew Wyeth as channeled through Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger ads. But McGinley’s use of amateur models imbues the work with a fragile integrity that will always elude commercial campaigns. His subjects offer not only their bodies, but a presence informed by their real lives.
Over time, McGinley’s interests during these road trips moved toward a greater, often breath-taking athleticism. In Coco’s Cliff, 2007–08, the model’s lithe figure seems to glide horizonally from the cliff across a cyclorama blue and pink sky. Cyclone, 2008, captures a tiny blonde-bobbed nude body catapulting upside-down and head first into the gray limitless space of gathering clouds.
In 2009’s Moonmilk, naked figures virtually disappear within the extravagant contours of caves and canyons. As one of his models, Dakota Goldhor, has observed, “His work shifted into creating, not just one single moment, but a poetic and dreamy macro-landscape. The question became: How does the individual fit into the grander stage?”
The photographs taken these years are dramatic and visually stunning: In Jack (Blue Mass), 2009, a small naked boy seems to support a massive, phosphorescent green boulder on his shoulders. Red rock smolders like liquid ore in an interior chamber behind him. Evoking a pre-Raphaelite painting of the Narcissus myth, the model in Marcel, 2009, seems to merge with his reflection in the depths of a cave’s underground pool. The small figure in Jack (Hanging Rock), 2009, sits on the ledge of a red turreted rock—the kind of formation usually seen towering over a southwestern desert mesa, but here the landscape’s been flipped: The stones line a canyon deep underground.
All of McGinley’s photographs taken since his 2001 debut exhibition have presented “ordinary” subjects in extraordinary situations, from the achingly archetypal languor of “Summer” to the athleticism of “Moonmilk.” In 2006, McGinley embarked on a new project, taking photos of fans at Morrissey concerts, which he would later reprise and expand at the Tennessee Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2011. The first series, “Irregular Regulars,” almost didactically proves the persistence of individual experience within the mass. Comprised of a nearly equal number of wide-angle shots, medium shots, and portraits, “Irregular Regulars” moves from a blue-lit, standing crowd that could have been shot at a political rally or sporting event to close-ups of individuals fans. Some are transfixed; others seem poised to catapult out of themselves in excitement. Each portrait depicts a unique, deeply personal flight into ecstasy. Photos of music and sports fans taken by artists such as Candice Breitz and Andrea Bowers have powerfully refuted the grim uniformity of mass spectacle proposed by Andreas Gursky’s crowd photographs. Their single-frame portraits portray the fans as individuals, but McGinley goes further than this: He shows us their souls, in transport.
McGinley further abstracts his photographic subjects in the 2010 series “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” a group of black-and-white portraits taken entirely in his studio. In this empty space—devoid of personal effects, natural elements, transporting music—his models are forced to interact with the one thing that remains: McGinley’s camera. They are almost all medium close-ups or mid-shots, and are remarkably intimate. More often and more explicitly than in his previous work, here McGinley’s subjects make direct eye contact with viewers. “I wanted the viewer to really feel that they’re engaged with the person,” the artist explains. “The feeling of that brief look that you share with someone at a restaurant, on line at the supermarket, on the subway—that one second that feels like an eternity, and then its over.”
Photographed from the waist up, Michael W, 2010, hides his face behind his hands, fingernails painted with chipping black polish. His face is concealed except for three soft wavy folds above his eyebrows, and his torso is naked except for a safety-pin pendant, a burn near his elbow, and some homemade tattoos—yet he projects a vulnerability that transcends any single emotion.
As usual, McGinley’s studio subjects are young, but again, “youth” isn’t the subject of these remarkable portraits; the physical youth of his subject’s bodies acts as a blue screen. Like the subjects of McGinley’s earliest work, these studio portraits feature models whose bodies and presences are still untouched by signs of visible age. What are wrinkles and bulges of flesh if not marks of a past that can no longer be shed? Myth, let us remember, is free of all past. Consequently, what emerges in “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” is less a “celebration of youth” than a use of young bodies to transform the human form into pure essence. Free of permanent marks (except those, like tattoos, that they’ve chosen themselves), the bodies of McGinley’s models are clear pools that reflect fleeting and universal emotions, attitudes, moods.
As “pseudo-fictions”—moments arrived at by placing real people in extraordinary situations—McGinley’s images offer us enchanting but credible narratives. Like Barthesian myths, they convey a sense of the “real” that is larger than life by simplifying and purifying their subjects. Informed by complex psychic and physical situations that exist just outside the frame, his images use the haphazard elements of everyday life to create an incandescent illusion of freedom and beauty.
“Art students always ask me what my work is about,” McGinley once remarked. “I’m always like, ‘Fuck, I don’t know.’ We have adventures; that was always my answer. But at one point I broke it down and realized that it’s about contingency.” In McGinley’s world, freed from history, these chance moments are forever foregrounded as Barthes writes, “making contingency appear eternal”—and caught between lightness and weight.