Ryan McGinness Works. at Deitch Projects
18 Wooster Street
New York, NY 10013
March 17 through April 18, 2009
Ryan McGinness wants us to enter his world, to see the cartoonish icons and rainbow swirls swimming all around him when he closes his eyes. The artist’s latest solo exhibition, Ryan McGinness Works., at Deitch Projects presents a number of new paintings, silkscreens, and sculptures aiming to immerse the viewer in some kind of ecstatic totality. The sentiment is slightly incongruous with the flatness of McGinness’s imagery – a world of two-dimensional icons and characters derived from the lexicon of contemporary graphic design (commercial skate design in particular.) It leads to the feeling of being in a computer screen or the Internet: there is a lot of white space (and in one room, black space) populated by crisp, colorful lines and a proliferation of what appear to be appropriated corporate logos. Over the past decade, McGinness has developed a riotous semiotics of pop culture and graphic design, employed in the service of art historical posturing, alluding to the work of Warhol, Pollack, Basquiat.
The strongest pieces in the show, and those most emblematic of McGinness’s practice, are the Pollackesque “paintings.” These canvases have hundreds, if not thousands, of silkscreened images on top of one another, utilizing every bit of space. Often done in Day Glo colors, each painting comes together in a psychedelic tableau capable of melting your retinas (I once sat in front of one for eight hours a day for three days and nearly lost it). Each square inch offers rich detail and seemingly endless surprises and eye candy. Others are done in grayscale, with tiny bits of color poking out from beneath the skulls, Virgin Marys, crowns, and other designs. No power is lost with the muting; actually, it is more a relief from the schizoid screamings of the brightly colored paintings.
Ryan McGinness, Only A Thief Thinks Everybody Steals, courtesy Deitch Projects
McGinness has also lately been making mandalas derived mainly from the fleur-de-lis, a number of which appear in Ryan McGinness Works. Called black holes, McGinness likens these to elaborately decorative assholes. On circular panels, neon lines and curlicues form a vortex. Four mandalas are part of a black-light installation in the downstairs alcove, with swirls printed onto the wall extending out of each piece, turning stoner black velvet posters into fine art in the best way.
New to McGinness’s oeuvre are the sculptural studies. Made in response to an exhibition of Keith Haring sculptures, these works translate the Pollack paintings into three dimensions. Like Haring’s sculptures, these works retain the flatness of their imagery. It is the lines in the paintings that inform the shape of the sculptures, with the imagery pasted on. More interesting to see would be McGinness’s icons coming to life in the way that Carroll Dunham’s characters do in that painter’s sculptural work.
Overheard at this year’s Armory Show, where one of McGinness’s paintings had prominent placement at the VIP entrance, was an older UES lady telling her older UES lady friends that “all these images come from somewhere else, they’re all appropriated.” Not for nothing is one of McGinness’s paintings titled Only A Thief Thinks Everybody Steals. In actuality, McGinness creates every image himself, in a painstaking process of sketching, drawing, re-drawing, and computer vectoring (draw your own conclusion about the lady in pearls).
In a way, McGinness’s art is political. Looking deeper into the pleasing glossy surface, one finds a militant, Dada-inspired urge behind the proliferation of cutesy symbols. Familiar images and design tropes are reprocessed, cut up and reconfigured, scattered pell-mell, overlapped and repeated. Here is art for the digital age; here is art for a time when advertising permeates consciousness. The repetition of these empty signifiers – anonymous icons imitating corporate design but not loaded with any selling power other than selling themselves – comments on capital’s visual manipulations. No scathing indictment of course, for, in the spirit of Warhol, McGinness’s work embraces commodification of itself, but more of a joke on the gullibility of consumers. That corporations such as Starbucks have used McGinness’s designs, or extraordinarily similar designs, in advertisements marks how closely attuned McGinness is to what kind of visual vocabulary sells these days.
What truly brings McGinness into the realm of fine art and establishes him as something more than simply an astute graphic designer who knows how to work the system, is his playful dialogue with the masters of art. While one of his paintings would not seem out of place next to a Hieronymous Bosch, this, too, is a game. The allusions to Jackson Pollack and Tristan Tzara are formal tools taken in all seriousness, but still, he’s made an entire series of assholes and draws cartoons in neon. That said, McGinness is a natural heir to those fathers of Modernism in a world that never wants to take anything seriously. That he channels Warhol’s silkscreening factory output and treats his studio enterprise as a corporation only underscores his place in the lineage.
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Brittany Taylor is a writer and artist living in Berlin.