In early 2012 Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós challenged filmmakers to create videos for their album Valtari. Photographer Ryan McGinley chose the song “Varúð,” an eight-minute dream narrated by a raspy head voice over an unsteady piano and transparent strings. In his video a barefoot girl in a glittery gold wig and a washed-out blue nightie skips through the streets of New York City in slow motion. She passes trucks, taxicabs, construction workers, and business men, moves along highways and park lanes, sometimes with the world around her caught in freeze frame.
McGinley called his video “a poem to the city” and stated that he wanted “to bring a childhood innocence to the streets.” For someone a couple of years older than McGinley (he was born in 1977) it’s hard to connect with this image of New York. For me the city evolved from a succession of no go areas affected by the urban exodus of the seventies and the crack epidemic of the eighties to the Disneyfied Giuliani-territory it is today. Of course, this greatest of great cities has many other faces as well. Pastoral fairyland, however, is not one of them.
But that’s probably just me being cynical. McGinley isn’t cynical and never has been. When studying at the Parsons School of Design he started photographing the skateboarders, graffiti artists, musicians, and other creative characters he was hanging out with in the East Village. The pictures are grainy and slightly rough, but the book McGinley first published them in carries the affirmative title The kids are alright (1999). Almost 35 years after Roger Daltrey sang these exact words, McGinley tried to rekindle the Summer of Love.
Ryan McGinley, Highway, 2007-2008. Particuliere collectie. Courtesy: Ryan McGinley/ Team Gallery
The solo show presently at KaDE includes a few of those early Manhattan pictures but focuses mostly on the work McGinley has done during the road trips he has taken since 2003. He would put a bunch of his friends on a bus and drive off to Idaho or Vermont, somewhere with rugged mountains, unspoiled caves, clear streams, and endless fields of wheat. They would all get undressed, like Adam and Eve except for their sensible hiking shoes and fashionable tattoos, and McGinley would start snapping. The result looks like the visual report of a nudist school trip: guys jumping off cliffs, girls rolling off sand dunes, spitting mouthfuls of apple at the camera, doing an impressive backflip from a barn, floating half-submerged in muddy water like a cross between Ophelia and the Venus de Milo. There is no aggression or pain, and no one ever cries. Sexual desire seems non-existent in this universe filled with angelic twenty-somethings. These are shiny happy people from the organic/PC-mold, hipsters before the label even existed.
Ryan McGinley, Ann (slingshot), 2007. Particuliere collectie. Courtesy: Ryan McGinley/ Team Gallery
McGinley portrays a youth subculture, possibly the very last of youth subcultures. Unlike punks, rockabillies, goths or skinheads, hipsters lack a unifying political orientation or choice of music. Their sense of togetherness is diffuse and largely dependent on external traits: the right kind of dorky clothes, café latte, and facial hair. In McGinley’s photographs the subjects are mostly stripped of these attributes but somehow their identity feels enlarged. His subjects are all young, mostly white, have great teeth and spotless skin. No one is blind or missing a limb. Among the portraits stickered on the wall, in an installation titled Yearbook, there is only one token fat girl and even she is überhip.
In McGinley’s photographs there is none of the self-destructiveness captured by Larry Clark in Tulsa (1971): young people succumbing to amphetamine, boredom and lack of a future. There is none of the fuck you-attitude that colors Wolfgang Tillmans’ early photographs of his friends pissing on chairs and climbing trees while wearing nothing but trench coats. Neither is irony part of the package. A work like Amalia Ulman’s hipster-dialogue-turns-hardcore-porn-video International House of Cozy (presently on show at Showroom Mama in Rotterdam) would be unthinkable in McGinley’s world of fuzzy love and peace.
Ryan McGinley, Jack (white sides), 2009, 66x101cm. Collection agnès b. Courtesy: Ryan McGinley/ Team Gallery
Over time McGinley’s work has become increasingly stylized. His subjects are still very mobile, lending the images a snapshot-like quality, but the large format prints and warm color palette make for aesthetically pleasing pictures. Sunlight turns into fireworks. A supermarket aisle where a girl high-fives a sign-board is submerged in a mysterious mist. In caves flooded with green or blue light naked bodies look like they’ve been hewn in marble—Mapplethorpe without the homoerotic undertone.
Both market and museums were quick to embrace McGinley. At 25 he became the youngest artist ever to get a solo at the Whitney Museum of American Art. But that was 2002 and the show had probably been in the making long before 9/11 started corroding the optimism built up during the prosperous and relatively carefree Clinton years. Since then the world has seen multiple financial crises, fundamentalist beheadings, refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, and a quiet world war in Central Africa resulting in millions of deaths. The show at KaDE begs the question: can one still get away with producing or even showing this kind of feel good art?
Ryan McGinley, Fireworks, 2002, 100x70cm. Collection agnès b. Courtesy: Ryan McGinley/ Galerie Perrotin, Paris
After some hesitation, I’m inclined to say yes. McGinley’s world is a fantasy world, carefully constructed, as show the “behind the scene” pictures of his sets. This is art as an escape valve from daily misery and the artist does not pretend it to be anything else. True, in some photographs the big bad world shines through—a girl with a black eye, another with legs covered in cuts—but we don’t get to see the relational violence or auto-mutilation that may have caused these blemishes. McGinley’s world is a happy paradise where no one ever dies or even grows old, everybody loves each other, and summer lasts forever.
Image at the top: Ryan McGinley, Jake (Cannes), 2005, 122x183cm. Collectie agnès b. Courtesy: Galerie Perrotin, Paris