Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Pied Piper of a
hip art crowd

Fine Arts

"Jasper"(2013) photograph by Ryan McGinley.
Photo: Courtesy the artist and Ratio 3
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Thirty-five and looking a good 10 years younger, photographer Ryan McGinley epitomizes downtown cool while being about as hot as a young New York City artist can be. His preferred subjects, people in their 20s, many of whom he met on road trips and at music festivals, are unabashedly naked, sometimes tattooed, photographed astride wild animals, adrift in the American landscape or in the woods like Adam and Eve before the fall. His latest installation, Yearbook, is comprised of 550 individual full-color (unposed) portraits of unofficial members of McGinley's young, hip downtown art crowd, for whom he's something of a pied piper. Shot in a studio against monochrome backdrops, they paper the walls, floor to ceiling, of Ratio 3 Gallery in the Mission. Standing amidst this class portrait of a thriving, ebullient subculture, it's hard to feel either alone or apprehensive about the viability of the creative community.

McGinley appears remarkably untarnished by the early success and recognition he encountered right out of the starting gate; at 24, shortly after graduating from Parsons School of Design, he became the youngest artist to get a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum. "That show really opened up so many possibilities for me," he recalled during a break between completing a hectic installation of his show and an opening bash at the gallery that brought together friends and admirers, who flew in from L.A. and N.Y., and an edgy local contingent that coasted onto the premises to a gathering whose vibe reflected the scenery. Tall with pale blue-green eyes, and impossibly slender in black pants and sneakers, McGinley, who's gay, seems more like your best friend's kid brother than an art star. He has surprisingly little of the underground too-cool-for-you attitude or swagger one would expect from an artist whose rise has been meteoric and sustained, and who's supported by a crew that includes a casting director and a studio manager. But when you see the work – anarchic, exuberant, occasionally exotic, and just this side of subversive, an expression of hedonistic spirit harnessed by discipline and technique – you can understand why key players were moved to launch and nurture his career. Yes, we've seen candid nudes before and kinkier portraits than these, but McGinley, who conveys what's in his mind's eye with self-assured directness, has that indefinable something plus a low-key charisma and disarming sweetness that, as one writer put it, make him " captivating both artistically and as a person." The following are excerpts from our conversation the evening of the opening.

Sura Wood: Is it true that you seek out models that resemble your older siblings when they were kids?

Ryan McGinley: Yeah, I'm one of eight children, and I'm the last. My mother had me 11 years after she had all my brothers and sisters. So I was kind of raised by teenagers. In a way, a lot of people in my photographs resemble what they looked like when they were younger.

Photographer Ryan McGinley at the opening for his installation Yearbook (2013) at Ratio 3 gallery. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Ratio 3

How do you choose your models?

My casting director knows who I'm interested in. Then there are recommendations from friends of friends, interesting people I meet on the street. Creative people who get what I do intrigue me the most. What's great about photography is getting to engage with people. I just love talking to them and finding out what's going on in their lives. In a larger sense, this show is about connections within the creative community. It's filled with painters, performance artists, musicians, dancers and photographers and actors.

Do you give instructions or offer scenarios to your models?

I have a hype girl, who stands next to me and talks to them, like the way a rapper would have a hype man, because when you're photographing somebody, you can get lost in the camera. I don't want to have that artificial conversation where you pull things out of people. I want it to be real. I set the tone, and then she makes it flow. I've heard all about the personal lives of the people in the show. It's like being a psychiatrist. 

You were recognized early and young. Has that been a double-edged proposition?

Not really, it's just given me a lot of opportunities.

How do you protect yourself and insulate your work from art-world forces eager to co-opt you?

I'm always working, and I have a lot of people who take good care of me. I have a gallery in New York that looks after my best interests and a big team that works with me in my studio. The machine, the hustle is relentless, that's the nature of New York. You get it done. I love it there and would never live anywhere else, but I try to do an escape act on these summer trips.

Whose career would you most like to have?

Berenice Abbott, because she took risks and set herself up for possible failure. I really like how she started out in Paris in the 1930s making portraits of her friends, then moved to New York and photographed the city while it was being built, which was so different. The work evolved and the changes were so drastic that I imagine people at the time didn't know what to expect next. She kept it new and exciting.

You recently directed a Mercedes commercial. Is that a direction you intend to pursue?

No, but it was great to get the offer because when you watch those commercials you never think, I'm going to make one of these things one day. They approached me, gave me carte blanche and of course, with Mercedes, it was an open budget. I got to use helicopters and do things like shoot the beginning of The Shining, which is one of my favorite movies, where Kubrick follows [Jack Nicholson's] car up [a windy mountain road] to the hotel; I got to make that shot. It was the best.


Through Oct. 19.


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