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Ryan McGinley

 

Painfully Constructed Image

 

Painfully Constructed Images

Ryan McGinley’s large, impressive pictures of nude bodies in dialogue with nature, beautiful or agonizing, are the most recent additions to this young yet firmly established New York-based photographer’s body of work. It isn’t entirely clear which aspect of these staged images is their main subject, or in focus: the nude, or the landscape. One way to decide the issue is to leave it up to the titles of the pictures and the series–some of them belong to a series called “Spring & Fall,” which seems reasonable enough. But that might also cause you to overlook something. What is the artist actually trying to do with these landscapes? After all, this series consists of a great number of pictures.

To form an opinion on this, and to find a satisfying answer to this question, it might be worthwhile to take a look around, both within the personal history of the artist and within the history of art photography. McGinley is, to a great extent, one of the more recent links in a more or less unbroken chain of artists who have all worked or are currently working within a tradition rooted in New York’s East Village. Notable examples are Ginsberg, Warhol, Hujar, and Goldin. His first pictures, a series of polaroids that has attained iconic status, and which is said to include than 10,000 photographs, represent a subject that is fairly commonly addressed by young art students. He was simply living his life among his friends and peers, with his camera in his hands. These pictures were shown in a solo exhibition at Whitney back in 2004, when he was only 26 years old, and were featured in exhibitions in New York and Denver last year. You could say that they define an era, not by virtue of being unique in the sense that nothing like them has ever been created or shown before, but by virtue of serving as a source of inspiration for a large group of young photographers. This new generation looks to McGinley as their role model rather than to the older generation I mentioned above, who are in turn the role models that McGinley looks up to.

 

This is where it gets interesting. When do you progress from looking at what others are doing, and attempting to reinterpret it through your own practice, and move on to becoming fully your own–an innovator and trailblazer? 

Part of the answer to this can be found in the recent photographs by McGinley that are shown in this exhibition. While his earliest images make it more than plain that the photographer is there, present and participating in the events he depicts (sometimes he even turns the camera on himself for a selfie, as if to prove this fact), it is just as apparent that the situation is different in his newer pictures. There is clearly a relationship, an intimacy of sorts, between the subject and the photographer, but at the same time, he is no longer present–or at least, he is no longer seen.

There is an earlier series of landscapes/nudes that is clearly a stepping stone along the way to the ones shown here. In them, nature is no more than a backdrop–a detached movie set or stage–to the naked bodies. The connection isn’t particularly clear, and seems almost coincidental. You could almost imagine that the photographer simply placed his models at random within environments controlled by chance events. The contrast is quite poignant. 

The connection isn’t particularly clear, and seems almost coincidental. You could almost imagine that the photographer simply placed his models at random within environments controlled by chance events. The contrast is quite poignant. 

If we wanted to classify these images as belonging to some genre or other, it could perhaps be claimed that they are fairly classical, formal nudes–but that despite this, there is something disquieting about them,

 
  Ryan McGinley, Raisa, 2017, C-print, Edition of 3, 68,5 x 101,5 cm

Ryan McGinley, Raisa, 2017, C-print, Edition of 3, 68,5 x 101,5 cm

  Ryan McGinley, Audubon, 2017, C-print, Edition of 3,    40,5 x 61 cm

Ryan McGinley, Audubon, 2017, C-print, Edition of 3,  40,5 x 61 cm

 

something artificial or staged. There is often an obvious tension or conflict between the model and the landscape. For example, take the woman climbing the tree, who seems unconcerned, almost relaxed. If the model were to be removed from the landscape, what we would see would be a studio photograph with immaculate lighting, the highlights shaping and bringing out the softness of her warm, rounded body, like one of Rodin’s classic sculptures. However, the landscape dominates at first sight, and pulls our gaze away from the model to the distant horizon. Soon, though, the gaze returns, and we see what the photographer wants us to: the beautiful woman in the right-hand side of the picture. 

The picture of the partially submerged man is altogether different. It has a spiritual dimension of sorts. He appears to be arduously making his way through the dark water with a burden on his shoulders, and looks up, as though seeking power, aid, and support. The dramatic lighting, set from above, at an angle, reinforces this impression, and also sets out a direction for the image as a whole that is further underlined by the man’s gaze. 

The two other photographs shown in this exhibition are, in a way, two halves of a pair. Their compositions are quite similar–both are dominated by large, brightly coloured areas, one of which is red, and

the other of which is green. Again, it’s impossible to tell if you’re supposed to be focusing on the landscape, the gorgeous colours, or the nude model. Two pictures arise out of one, but the narrative aspects take over. The question is immediately raised: what is going on here?  Is thewoman in the green picture the victim of some crime? Is she even alive?

The woman in the red picture is wandering blissfully through the rich red plumage of the fall season–but what is she thinking? What has happened?

It is the combined picture–the landscape with the model (or the model in the landscape)–that gives rise to this uncertainty. This is where we can see the connection to McGinley’s earlier work. He has carefully removed the immediacy, the rawness, and the private dimension from his photographs. The artist no longer appears in them himself, despite remaining very tangibly present in them. 

These naked bodies have been turned into beautiful, aesthetically appealing aspects of the poetic, lyrical landscapes, as though they were organic parts of them—and yet, they very much do not belong there.

Berndt Arell