Alison Jacques Gallery, 11 September- 8 October 2009
The American artist Ryan McGinley has been the photographer to watch for a while now. He has been heading up the young, Downtown New York art scene with street spilling private views at his gallery Team, and creating a stir with his photographs of beautiful, naked friends.
What’s most interesting about McGinley is that he didn’t come from a fine art or photography background. He was mid-way through a graphic design course when he put on his own solo exhibition in a disused gallery space. The show, titled The Kids Are Alright, came complete with a (self- designed) catalogue which he distributed to galleries and artists alike. This unvarnished self-promotion was echoed in the subjects in his work: young, beautiful friends hanging out during the day and partying hard by night, happily, knowingly, posing for ‘impromptu’ shoots.
McGinley’s London debut at Alison Jacques follows on from his artwork for Sigur Ros’ 2008 album Me su i eyrie vi spill endalaust and his collaboration on their video ‘Gobbledigook’. Moonmilk consists of a series of photographs inspired by Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. He photographed nude figures in uncharted North American caves, the figures appearing either in the distance or in close up against spectacular, overwhelming geological backdrops. Whatever the scale, the images brim with rich, natural textures and colours. The work does indeed exude a Verne-like feel – at times it even recalls the 1959 Technicolor film version of the novel. This balancing act between portraiture and such monumental landscapes somehow removes the focus from the figure, yet in documenting nudes in this kind of raw environment it enhances the subjects’ vulnerability considerably.
At first glance, this series appears to be a moderate departure for McGinley, whose subjects were previously set in their own urban New York counterculture environment. Moonmilk is reminiscent (in approach) to the the photographs of Gregory Crewdson – highly staged images with enhanced colour and a disquieting eeriness. McGinley’s achievement, however, is in making use of his fashion-insider’s perspecrive and ‘snapshot’ aesthetic, and reconciling this with a sympathetic view of the natural environment. The results are photographs that are very traditional – studies in landscape, nudes, colour – yet which say something very contemporary about the self-awareness of both the artist and the subject.
McGinley has described making this work as being akin to creating an opera, because everything had to be deliberately slowed down. He has previously favoured elements of action and spontaneity in his work rather than working to any preconceived idea of the finished image. He is, in his own words, “absolutely not interested in making depressing images”. And that is the one thing they are definitely not.