Sun and Health Introduction by Martha Schwendener
“Ryan McGinley: An Accessible Eden”
Americans didn’t invent the concept of freedom, although they are particularly fond of it. Freedom, the boiled-down, disyllabic version of France’s Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, serves, in the absence of other foundational myths as a kind of national legend, a point of departure, even a nemesis against which progress and reality are weighed.
It’s also a defining trope in American art. The CIA supported Abstract Expressionism because it was the unbridled style that “proved” America, unlike fascist Europe or communist Russia, supported the free expression of the individual. Freedom is also a recurring motif in American photography. The 19th and early 20th century landscapes of the American West served as emblems of free movement (as well as expansionism) and iconic war images like Joe Rosenthal’s photo of soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima served to document the “preservation” of freedom. The unflinching eye of straight photography underscored the way in which artists functioned as free agents, documenting the social landscape as well as the quirks and debaucheries of its freedom-drunk population.
American art and freedom have been most characteristically combined in one concept: the road trip. The classic example, of course, is Jack Kerouac’s bohemian Beat odyssey, On the Road (1957). But the road trip has become a rite of passage for photographers too. Robert Frank’s The Americans was even anointed by a Kerouac introduction: that crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car.*
In his new series of photographs, Ryan McGinley combines all of these things: bohemia, America, the road trip, the search for some kind of freedom. For the last two summers he’s taken vanloads of friends who double as subjects on road trips across the United States and photographed them in motels and houses, campsites and landscapes ranging from forests to deserts.
The subjects are young, kind of beautiful, and romantically reckless. They carry names — Jake or Lily or Tim — but we don’t know anything about them. They exist in a halo-world of light and beauty, like models in an editorial or ad spread. Only they get to do what those models only hint at doing. They get fucked up and have sex and fight and lie out on the desert sand, naked. They bungee jump and skinny dip in rivers and streams. Nothing comes between them and the great American outdoors.
In many ways, the figures in McGinley’s photographs are recreating the age-old art pastoral: Titian’s bacchanals; Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe; everyone’s bathers (from Boucher to Cézanne to Picasso). Getting out of the city, as McGinley has commented, brings out a freedom and energy. People really let down their guard. That persistent idea of freedom…
There is, naturally, in all Western art pastorals, the nagging sense of a journey that can never be completed: the return to Eden. However, where much of the pastoral genre swings around this idea of nostalgia and melancholy, McGinley’s subjects are stripped of this. Often, they are smiling. Guilt and shame are erased. This seems the biggest break from the photographs of the past. For where Larry Clark’s subjects in Tulsa had sex and did plenty of drugs, there was embedded in the photos the dark moral tale: the drug addict whose infant dies; the gun that leads to trouble; the heartland of a country gone rotten.
In McGinley’s works, sex is playful, joyful. This isn’t the fumbling, desperate back-seat sex of Teenage Lust — which serves as an analogue for a whole other level of existential frustration. It’s something different. Groups of nudes splash in the water or lodge themselves in a pine tree. The figure merges with the landscape — often literally. The sun washes out bodies in the desert; a torso slips into water. And bodies merge together.
McGinley is characteristically candid about his inspiration for this series. It’s not the photography one would find in galleries or museums — the fuzzy pictorialism of Steichen or the roaming road-trip camera of Friedlander. Rather, he’s turned to the vernacular: that great sea of photographs created by amateurs, “lay” photographers who like to document their friends and themselves at leisure in the buff, riding motorcycles, boating, camping, scuba diving, consuming nature.
McGinley collects photos in the same way Jim Shaw collects thrift store paintings or Richard Prince re-photographs images of topless biker chicks. But where irony rules among Prince and Shaw’s generation — a complicated stance that positions the artist “above” his subjects — McGinley is markedly different. He embraces these found photos, makes booklets of them, copies their subject and tone and, more importantly, identifies with the sense of freedom one gets when looking at these images, a feeling that being nude in nature and documenting it is every photographer — no, every American’s — inalienable right.
With their precedent in the “high art” road trip and their embrace of vernacular culture, McGinley’s photos achieve something beyond the anthropological barometer reading of a moment in history. He’s moved beyond the charged status of the photographed nude, rejecting the “serious” approach to art-nudity and adopting the easy, comfortable relationship between the body and nature — and, more importantly, the photographer and his subject — that already exists in so-called amateur photography.
This, then, might be a new definition of freedom: the road trip, not as escape or odyssey into self-discovery, but a journey into an accessible Eden, one already found and enjoyed and documented by thousands (perhaps millions) of clothing-optional Americans. The photographic nude, rather than being conscious of her nudity — her exposure — revels in it. She becomes the everywoman cavorting in the great American outdoors, an emblem of freedom shaken, for a brief moment, from all the complicated associations that word brings forth.