Photographer Ryan McGinley didn’t have to do much to clear his name after being accused of widespread plagiarism by a fellow photographer last summer. In July, Janine “Jah Jah” Gordon filed a suit against McGinley in Manhattan federal court, claiming one hundred and fifty instances in which similarities between McGinley’s work and her own were the product of theft. The allegations were dismissed in little more than a month, as Gordon’s claims were far too broad to constitute copyright infringement with the accusing photographer, who, in effect, was claiming exclusive purchase to compositions as general as an interracial kiss or a young man with outstretched arms in mid-frame.
Regardless of where it came from, one can’t deny that McGinley has developed a highly recognizable approach to making photographs. Concentrating on the lush bodies of uniquely attractive young people, they can be seen in both top-notch commercial galleries across the globe and in campaigns like the one he shot for Levi’s in 2009. It’s an approach McGinley began developing more than ten years ago when he started exhibiting candid photographs taken among his rambunctious, Lower East Side milieu. It wasn’t long before those impromptu explorations of youth, beauty, and excess attracted the art world’s eye.
McGinley now employs carefully selected models to embody the mixture of youthful exuberance and potent physical beauty characteristic of his earlier work, which spans choreographed studio shoots and well-orchestrated road trips. In previous endeavors he’s traveled cross-country with groups of models, shooting the (often naked) youngsters frolicking in woods, deserts, and caves, as well as indoors to shoot the (again, often naked) models against monochrome backdrops.
Both halves of this bi-pronged photographic practice can currently be seen in two different exhibitions on view this month at Team Gallery. It’s the first time Team has given over both its locations to a single artist since opening its second location on Wooster Street last year. In Animals (at the Grand street location), McGinley presents images of nude human models paired with models of other species against bright, single-color backdrops. The animals hang from, claw at, and coil around the young people in the photographs.
Prominent contours and tight cropping lend many of the images an air of high art refinement and objective distance reminiscent of Karl Blossfeldt’s stark naturalist studies. Add to that Mapplethorpe’s characteristics emphasis on all things sexual. Look a little closer and consider the animals’ positioning in relation to the human bodies— especially the genitals and other erogenous zones—and you’ll find a dirty sense of humor that makes Mapplethorpe look stuffy.
In mining this sexual subtext with clever puns and other humor, McGinley teases our near-universal tendency to feel humiliation at the sight of our own bodies, specifically the parts that enact the mechanics of intercourse. Like any good dirty joke, it gives us a chance to laugh at our own complex and fraught psychologies; our parties honteuse as windows to the soul.
McGinley isn’t known for presenting such a rich view of human interconnectedness. So far, he has focused on bodies, treating his subjects somewhat like commodities who bear abundant quantities of attractiveness, cool, and other coveted intangibles. It’s a vision akin to Madison Avenue presented as art, which is why his work moves so effortlessly between both poles. The introduction of animals and puns into his formula for covetable human attractiveness gives McGinley’s Animals a self-referentially that was lacking in his former vision, turning its horizons towards the possibility of greater meaning and deeper resonance.
On the other hand, McGinley’s second show, Grids (at Team’s Wooster Street location), focuses on kids—loads of them. McGinley spent the past four years traveling across the U.S. and Europe to outdoor music festivals, photographing the faces of teenage concert-goers as they witness live performances. The show is made up of three different pieces, each consisting of several different framed photographs hung in grids large enough to cover an entire wall. McGinley’s signature use of saturated color jumps forward in many of these photographs, not as the product of digital manipulations but the result of stage lighting cast on the concert-goers’ faces. In many cases the young people look ecstatic, captured in a moment of intense pleasure and joy.
This isn’t new territory for McGinley. In 2007, McGinley’s first solo show at Team titled Irregular Regulars presented photographs shot at Morrissey concerts across the U.S., U.K., and Mexico. A few of the photographs in this series resemble those in Grids. However, where Irregular Regulars treated each image on its own terms, Grids subsumes each individual image into its overarching format. The result is a large, somewhat homogeneous surface punctuated by independent incidents that viewers must regard separately.
The grids are all titled You and My Friends, signalling an insider/outsider dynamic that if we (the viewers) interpret the second person singular pronoun you as referring to ourselves, then we can take the title as invitation to join the artist and his cohorts in a three-way atemporal gathering that replicates the communal experience many seek by attending concerts in the first place. It’s an interesting conceit, especially for an artist so immersed in the cultures of pop music and spectatorship. The grids may not offer best opportunity for phenomenological reflection, but, like the photographs in Animals with their self-referential punning, they possess depth to animate McGinley’s sensuous compositions.