Sunday, May 6, 2007

Ryan McGinley: Building a youthsex brand

Ryan McGinley, 2005, All rights reserved

In a profile by Philip Gefter in today’s NY Times, Ryan McGinley is presented as the latest chronicler of America’s flaming youth. McGinley photographs mostly naked white kids in communal settings – partying, swimming, road tripping, etc. Viewers are reminded of Nan Goldin's doomed NY hipsters from Ballad of Sexual Dependency days, but, unlike Goldin’s alphabet city scramblers, McGinley’s preppies look so young & dewy, so untouched by grownup experience, I can imagine them being targeted as kiddy porn if McGinley weren’t himself their sweet-faced peer.

Then too, Goldin’s photos have a strong sense of story. Her images capture emotional pulses – mostly crises -- in lives we can actually imagine. McGinley’s are disturbingly random, as though plucked, this-frame-as-good-as-that-frame, from a playacted version of endless summer. As the Times describes McGinley’s method, he “…shoots as much as he can in the belief that ‘editing is as good as shooting’ .” His projects have a reality show structure: In the summer of 2003, for example, he rented a house in Vermont and invited groups of friends to come and stay a week to be photographed. The groups were “invited” to walk naked through the woods, jump on a trampoline, climb and perch in trees. The results are sloppy snapshots of naked teenagers performing usually witless behaviors – a kind of carefully cast youth nudist colony with McGinley as activities director. Occasionally, they deliver a genuine erotic – often homoerotic – jolt. To my eye, that’s as good as it gets.

I was struck by the article’s gee-whiz admiration for McGinley’s entrepreneurial savvy and zeal. While still in high school, his first show appropriated a Who title, “The Kids Are Allright,” and squatted in a Soho gallery building that was being renovated. He made desk-top books of his photos to sell and mailed them to art directors and favorite photographers like Goldin and Larry Clark. These days -- like a successful manufacturer turning out product -- he charters cross-country trips with eight friends and two assistants in a pair of vans. McGinley shoots 20-30 rolls of film a day and his assistants video everything. The trips cost $100,000 each.

The Times’ piece seems so wowed by all this energy it’s hardly a surprise when Gefter concludes that “…what distinguishes him [McGinley] from a personal blogger or online visual diarist is the rigor of his artistic output and his ambition.”

Move over Jeff Koons.


Chris said...

Saw the feature this morning and had much the same reaction, especially to that which you described so aptly as the "carefully cast youth nudist colony with McGinley as activities director." (Sally Mann was the first thing that came to my mind.) As I'm trying to head in a more conceptual direction myself in some new work, though, I try not to be too hard on things like this. There will always be flavor-of-the-week artists whose youth, beauty or whatever capture the attention of those who are chasing these same dreams.

Tim Connor said...

placeinsun from flickr said:

i'd just finished reading the NYTimes article, when i saw your post

you articulated well some of my thoughts on it . . . i find the collision of well-funded road trips and youthful "spontaneity" curious, tho i suppose it shouldn't be these days. life as marketable performance. little of the fragility of nan's subjects, at least not yet.

Tim Connor said...

buster/ken from flickr said:

love your blog, though i apparently don't have permission to view the nekkid pitchurs. too young, i guess. but all those sixites shots--sigh, all those dead people.

Tim Connor said...

I put a link to this post on my flickr page & my visitors there came here to read, then went back to comment. Huh? Well, this is the last one I'll copy.

Seenyarita said:

i read your blog post and i agree. i like his work--young and fun but great? no!

dubmill said...

I think the last statement comparing what he does to a blogger or online visual diarist is fair enough. There clearly is a lot more forethought and consistency to it.

First thing is I am old and unsuccessful; therefore I have a violent resentment towards the young and successful. I can't help it. I've always been jealous of people who are more successful than me and it's just got worse the older I've got. Unfortunately that colours my view of people like McGinley, although in this case it's more the people he depicts because I didn't find anything especially hateful in his quoted statements or the description of his working methods.

Second thing is I am reminded of Calvin Klein ad campaigns, pretty much. Is that not what it is? A myth of youth and sex in a hyper capitalist society?

sylvia said...

"McGinley’s preppies look so young & dewy, so untouched by grownup experience, I can imagine them being targeted as kiddy porn if McGinley weren’t himself their sweet-faced peer."

Funny, I saw an instance of this recently. My partner was drawn by then energy and loud laughter of a group of young people (20s) and he went to sit near them ... there were seats free but I went over and dragged him away to sit someplace else.

It felt voyeuristic to me, uncomfortable, as if he were a dirty old man there to letch at their youth.

I was really surprised by my own reaction and that I so strongly felt he should not "partake" of their fun as if there were an age limit.

(He wasn't making a nuisance of himself, btw, just choosing the table next to theirs, a chair that faced them. They may have ignored him, they may have spoken to him and included him in the conversation, who knows? They never got the chance.)

I got the same sort of feeling with his images (private! not for you!) and then saw your comment and was a bit relieved that it's not just me who sees that (although clearly it's a bit more knee jerk for me!)

Certainly it's not something I can see him able to pull off for very long as the critical point is his youth (I think).

Tim Connor said...

David, Yes, well I'm older than you & not exactly topping the who's who charts myself. I understand (& I share) your resentment; was in fact acutely aware, writing the post, that some might read it as the sour-grapes rant of a cranky old loser. So be it. Personal biases don't disqualify. The issues are real.

I did not mean to personally attack McGinley. I don't know him. Clearly he has energy & talent. I'm mostly annoyed by his innocence (in the Times piece, this kid, who was an international art star a few years out of high school, is quoted as insisting, "I’ve worked really hard. I’ve devoted my life to this." -- & yes, I know journalists can twist the meaning of quotes). But he's only a collaborator -- & what would I do -- or you -- if Satan came & offered all the shining cities of the plain?

It's the starmaker machinery that pisses me off. What gets elevated & what gets ignored. OK, we're all titillated seeing a big color print of a pretty young couple fucking in the shower. If someone wants to pay multi thousands to hang that in the party room, OK. What do I care? The whole gallery process has given it the imprimatur of art so it can be justified at the same time it's enjoyed as porn. So what? Isn't that fun & ironic & all that hall-of-mirrors shit we like so much?

Yeah, but what about gets ignored?What about your work, David? Here's an experiment, dear reader. Go to & take some time. Don't just click around impatiently, open a few files & leave. Take 20 minutes, say, a half hour -- as an experiment. There's a powerful, consistent vision & style here. Slow down & take a good luck. This work is worth it.

I've been thinking more & more I should use this blog to talk about what I love than criticize what I don't.

Tim Connor said...

Sylvia, Isn't it odd? My generation was the one that believed it had banished sexual shame (probably every generation believes this). Now in a culture obsessed with youthful sexuality we struggle not to find our aging shameful.

Christine (CA) said...

Thanks for the links and the thoughts. I find some of his images interesting but at a relatively low level. Bunch of white kids with nothing better to do. Mostly, I can't stop thinking of Lord of the Flies.

Raphael Aizan said...

if mcginley is "sweet", who is "tough"?

Tim Connor said...

I don't know. Who do you think is tough?

Raphael Aizan said...

that's what i'm asking. in previous generations, there were larry clark, bruce davidson, etc. but now who is there? lauren greenfield? lise sarfati?

Tim Connor said...

Raphael, Thanks for pointing me to Lauren Greenfield & Lise Sarfati, neither of whom I knew. I'm trying to learn more about new photographers, one of the reasons I've started blogging & not just working on my own stuff.

I re-read the piece you linked to & think it's kind of simplistic, but even so my sense is that there are plenty of "tough" photographers out there. I base that mostly on my friends & contacts in NY & elsewhere, a lot of whom I know through Flickr. But these people ( I guess roughly defined as photobloggers) are basically below the radar at least in art photog circles. You're right that the trend today in the galleries is toward set up & created photos & lavish presentation, often very conceptual, often created to a large degree in post-production. That's what you see out there but that's not necessarily all that's happening. There's a whole world of photojournalism out there for one thing. The coverage of the Iraq war, e.g., is probably better than any war before; it's just the photogs haven't become stars like Robert Capa & some of the earlier war photographers did. See Michael Kamber's pic on the cover of today's NY Times e.g. -- also check out the work of Ron Haviv -- & there are lots of others. Yeah, but I agree -- general dearth of toughness. Photojournalism (rightly) raises a lot of questions that no one thought to ask 30 or 40 years ago. Still, it's there. And there are still photogs digging into gritty stories that aren't newsy. I think Eugene Richards is a truly great photo artist, just to take one example. But then I guess he's in his 40s? -- Sorry for the rambling answer. Thanks for raising the question.