It has been a decade since Ryan MGinley's debut museum show at the Whitney in New York. He was 25 at the time, notably young to have a solo exhibition there, and while his current show at Ratio 3 is by no means a survey, it is called Yearbook, and by title invokes the idea of retrospective thinking. McGinley is best known for his photographs derived from infamous road trips in which he brings a team of youthful models into all corners of the American landscape and snaps them, naked in the wild. The contrast of skin and the elements often evokes a palpable sense of freedom, vulnerability, and youthful abandon fueled by physical exertion and endorphins. They run, they jump, they roller skate, they hang from trees. They have a blast.
Yearbook is an offshoot of McGinley's road trips. It features three-years' worth of his portraits, pictures that sometimes come from his casting calls -- he has a casting agent as part of his team. The show includes hundreds of poster-size portraits of men and women, most of whom seem to have recently passed into adulthood, are impossibly thin, and have a predilection for amateur tattoos, posing nude against vibrant, single colored backdrops. The images are wheat-pasted from floor to nearly the gallery's high ceiling, one photo over another, an experiment in installing his work inspired by the gallery's scale. The result might be described as a wall of flesh.
Yet that term doesn't quite jibe with the underlying innocence and genuine positive vibes of the seemingly uber-hip models, or McGinley's visually arresting means of capturing his subjects. You have to wonder what kind of person is able to coax so many people out of their clothes -- getting their naked selves out onto craggy bluffs, scratchy wheat fields, or the relative comfort of a photo studio. In conversation during the Ratio 3 installation, the New York-based artist exudes a calm charisma, and a disarming focus as he describes his process, and the stories he's gleaned from his subjects during shoots.
Ryan McGinley, Yearbook, Installation view
He explains that the portraits are the result of casting sessions, some serving as auditions for his legendary road trips (he just did one traveling through thirty-five states with teams of models for photos that will be shown this winter in other shows), others resulting in just studio works. "Casting is fun for me," he says with a smile. "I like the idea of finding someone who wouldn't necessarily think of themselves as a model. Everyone is a musician, a painter, or a performer. They're all involved creatively. They are the people who get what I do."
In a behind-the-scenes publication, he writes, aptly in longhand, "I want my photographs to look like The Rolling Stones sound." He apparently hits that mark, as he has the popularity of front-man to a successful band with street cred -- his exhibition openings typically attract mobs of folks who resemble the people in his pictures.
The scene might not appeal to everyone. McGinley's consistent focus on youth, and a limited demographic range of ethnicities, however, might make older viewers feel uncomfortable or even voyeuristic. Does he get flack for this vision? "People have definitely asked me about it before," he says, pausing. "I don't know what to say about that; it's my subject. It's what I am interested in."
It's tempting to think of his work anthropologically, as a picture of a generation, though McGinley is an active participant (in that behind-the-scenes publication, he's seen in states of undress with everyone else). He is a magnetic people person, and thrives on the stories they tell him about their lives. Walking through the show, he adds anecdotes about many of them: A gay Rasta guy whose family won't accept his identity; a woman who just had abdominal surgery; "That guy's dad is a rapper; that guy works in my gallery in New York; I like her because of her hairy armpits," he says.
Ryan McGinley, Yearbook, Installation view
As we talk, cameras on tripods clicked in the service of a time-lapse record of the show's making. Our conversation was being videotaped by one of his assistants, and he had a tiny mic clipped inside his collar. He's been recording each photo shoot, interview, and opening reception for the last decade. To some, this may seem sinister or narcissistic, but McGinley's emphasis is far more experiential than cultural critique. As his inspiration, he points to Andy Warhol's practice of archiving a group of people, and the idea that he'll one day be able to make a film of his practice, to perhaps reveal it as more of a conceptual project. The material will also offer a treasure trove of information to future McGinley scholars. The practice seems to be the hallmark of a generation that is comfortable with media's ubiquitous presence. Unlike Warhol, McGinley doesn't seem cynical about what media does. It is a tool, a means of creating images, and living a particular lifestyle.
"Overall, I think my work is pretty hopeful and positive. I'm never focused on despair or sadness. With energy comes positivity. I like it when people are moving, and I don't know what I'm going to get." It's that trust in the experience that is responsible for some of his work's appeal -- and perhaps the thing that will propel it forward.
Ryan McGinley: Yearbook is on view through October 19, 2013 at Ratio 3 in San Francisco. For more information, visit ratio3.org.