Alison Jacques, 2009

Alison Jacques Gallery, ‘Moonmilk’, 2011


Acclaimed American artist Ryan McGinley’s first UK solo show presents 22 new colour photographs shot in caves across North America. Over the past year, he and his crew explored huge underground caverns, venturing into unknown territory, seeking out spectacular natural spaces, some previously undocumented. ‘Moonmilk’ alludes to the crystalline deposits found on the walls of many caves, a substance once believed to have been formed by light from celestial bodies passing through rock into darkened worlds below. A book of McGinley’s new photographs has been published by Morel to coincide with the exhibition.

McGinley describes his work as a journey, and his photographs form a ‘travel log’ which captures his experiences across the American landscape. This particular adventure pushed his troupe to new levels of bravery, testing the participants’ fortitude and endurance in hazardous conditions. McGinley recalls, “there is something prehistoric about a cave that makes one feel comfort and impending doom all in one breath. The air is often thick with dust, humidity and the smell of minerals while the ground is slick clay, or rubble that fell from the ceiling. It is slow going when burdened by the excessive amount of lighting options needed to pull off an 8-hour shoot. Most caves are no more than 50 degrees inside while some house ice stays intact all year round, making it a challenge to endure the long exposures and precarious setups necessary to shoot with such limited light.”

McGinley’s goal is to explore, experiment, take risks. He works thoroughly, deeply and obsessively. He is curious and open, while remaining interested in very specific things. These new cave photographs demand that viewers accustomed to his previous work throw away everything they might have thought about McGinley – gone is the snapshot kid. As he puts it, “I wanted a challenge, so I decided to do the cave project because I needed to slow my film. Shooting these pictures was like directing theatre – I had to pay attention to every little movement.”

Some of the inspiration for this work came from childhood adventure stories such as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. McGinley also took cues from the illustrations to be found in children’s books and even in the Bible stories, such as Jonah and the Whale, his mother read to him as a child.

McGinley rejected working in commercial caves, focusing instead on what are commonly referred to as ‘Wild Caves’. Some of the terminology associated with explorers and other kinds of pioneers can be applied to McGinley and his work process: trailblazer, pathfinder, seeker, searcher, frontiersman, surveyor. For the cave photographs, McGinley plunged himself, his models and his crew into an awesome and impenetrable blackness and brought back evidence from the hidden realm – pictures from inside the earth.

Ryan McGinley (born in Ramsey, New Jersey, 1977) lives and works in New York. Solo museum shows include FOAM Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam (2007); Kunsthalle Vienna (2006); Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León (2005); P.S. 1, New York (2004). In 2003, at the age of 24, McGinley was the youngest artist to have a monographic exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Public collections include: Whitney; Guggenheim; SFMoMA, San Francisco; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Ellipse Foundation, Portugal.