Ryan McGinley: Mirror, Mirror @Team

JTF (just the facts): A total of 28 color photographs exhibited on white walls without frames or mats along three walls, and installed thus: 4 verticals on the back wall; and 14 horizontals on each of the side walls, stacked atop each other in two parallel lines. All are c-prints, dated 2018, and produced in editions of 3. Each measures either 27×40 inches or the reverse. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work is scheduled for publication in October by Rizzoli (here).

Comments/Context: When Ryan McGinley made his buzzy solo debut at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2003, the MTV reality stunt show Jackass was just ending its run (2000-2002.) Johnny Knoxville, the handsome star of that homage to the daredevil, bone-breaking  antics of skateboard culture, has always reminded me of McGinley. Both learned early on that being disreputable can be profitable in the youth market, but each sees his role as ringmaster of the circus, orchestrating and recording the actions of their tight circle of friends rather than needing the spotlight to be on himself.

McGinley’s s numerous gallery and museum exhibitions over the last 15 years, and his steady stream of commissions from fashion magazines and companies, have proven his remarkable ability to balance a frenetic schedule with a loosey-goosey, substance-driven, around-the-clock party atmosphere that blurs the distinctions between a useful occupation and goofing off. As he and his pals have grown up, his focus has shifted from laughing at the dumb, adolescent shit they would do—a typical McGinley photo in the early years might depict someone throwing up on the lawn or passed out under a car—to floating ideas about a utopian LGBTQ community. Since 2013, everyone in his pictures has looked healthier, while wearing few or no clothes, the goal of life apparently to be as comfortable as possible in one’s own naked, tattooed skin.

In his latest project, he celebrates a medley of body types—older, slacker, wrinkly flesh as well as the tall and skinny, androgynous kind he has so often favored in the past. “Mirror, mirror” is the beginning of the Evil Queen’s question about beauty and vanity from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When she asks her reflection “who is the fairest of them all?,” the middle-aged sorceress is furious to discover that the answer is a much younger—and whiter—woman.

McGinley’s mirror proposes more than one answer, identifying beauty in difference across a miscellany of ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and skin tones.

From the beginning, photography for him is a way to enhance a sense of belonging among the participants he portrays, and this project continues that approach. Each of his subjects (aged 19 to 87) was given the same kit prepared by McGinley and his assistants: a Yashica T4 point-and-shoot camera, 5 rolls of 35 mm color film, 20 mirrors of various sizes (delivered to their living spaces), and a set of instructions for taking nude selfies.

Instead of strict rules, the written texts offered suggestions (e.g. to pose like a classical statue or to cuddle their pets, if they had one) that have helped previous frightened subjects of his to loosen up.  The mirrors were inserted into the scenes, as he told a reporter for Artnet, to achieve a “refracted, kaleidoscopic” effect.

The results question ideas of private authorship and elevate those of collaboration, while complicating those, too. Each person exercised “free will” in standing, sitting, or lying down against the background of his or her choosing. These are their photographs and their self-presentations of their own naked bodies. On the other hand, McGinley, as initiator, editor, and ultimate judge of the single print of each person in the show (and in the upcoming Rizzoli book), exercised controls over the final product. The printed guidelines that each person were told to follow constituted another intermediary.

McGinley is as curious about these lived-in interior spaces—and the personal things his models have chosen to surround themselves with—as he is in their sexual expressivity. The photographs have more in common with the voyeuristic pleasures of celebrities-at-home shelter magazines than with porn. As in the climactic shoot-out in the funhouse that concludes Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, mirrors mirror mirrors so that we can’t be sure what’s what or where’s where.

Red-haired Audrey mugs a fit of rage, flanked by a wall of electric and acoustic guitars, their frets, necks, and strings magnified and fragmented by the mirrors, an appropriately disorienting view of stable reality for an instrument popular in the Cubism of Picasso.

Chris has photographed himself upside down on an orange and white striped Mexican blanket in the central of the three mirror panels, a curly froth of vape smoke escaping from his open mouth. Plants in pots hang on braided strings of yarn from the ceiling. A bulbous white lamp (Ikea-purchased?) completes the room décor we’re permitted to see.

The couples chosen by McGinley include a single mother and child (Elena and Alexander) and a less traditional arrangement (Mary V. and Chella R., the latter who is transitioning.) Some of the models are familiar from previous series (Carlotta and Liz and Marc) while a few, such as his real-estate agent (Nicole) are making their debuts as McGinley superstars. Imperfect bodies are OK in this version of the fashion world, even preferable.

His work puts a premium on exploratory fun over anything else, and many of his subjects have met the challenge that he has given them. Some of them have used the mirrors to disguise, double (or triple), and distort their bodies. Chris gives himself two heads and crops them so that the long tresses on either side appear to be beards. It’s hard to tell where the ink on the body of Eric ends and the graffiti on his wall begins. Sylvia has leaned a single long mirror against the floor-to-ceiling window of her high-rise apartment. We can see her nude body photographing itself against the wide open city behind her.

But her exhibitionism is not as it flagrant as it appears. Anyone peeping in would be blocked by the mirror: it’s a show for us alone, the viewers of the photographs.

McGinley’s early role models seemed to be that baddest of anarchic trouble-makers, Larry Clark, and the queen bee chronicler of downtown New York, Nan Goldin. Lately he has also been asking what non-photographers could do for him. The impetus for Mirror, Mirror—the process of generating art from a verbal blueprint—was inspired by the wall drawings of Sol Lewitt and the game pieces of Yoko Ono. Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Mirror Paintings and Robert Smithson’s Mirror Displacements may also have figured into his thinking. The recent high visibility of Paul Mpagi Sepuya, whose hide-and-seek self-portraits with mirrors have revived the genre, may also have motivated him.

McGinley, though, is not an academic artist and doesn’t filter ideas for imagery through a catalog of historical references. His roots are in the streets, in punk. Like Wolfgang Tillmans, he sees photography as a social rather than a solitary activity. The slice of contemporary life that they choose to document may exclude much of the middle-class working world and be directed mainly at an audience of like minded outcasts and hipsters. But there is no doubting the sincerity of their wish to connect with others by chronicling life. Their pictures are a tonic against the poison of hate, an antidote against affectless cynicism, and the value of that is beyond price.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $10000 and $20000. McGinley’s photographs are generally available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging between roughly $5000 and $35000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by MACK Books (here). Spiral-bound hardcover, 18 x 22 cm, 80 pages, with 40 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by Neelika Jayawardane ... Read on.

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