Some of them even shyly stood next to their nudes, but a few of them looked sweetly skittish when anyone asked them to pose with their portrait. McGinley is known for his nude subjects, but he skirts all obvious sexual appeal; he likes physical awkwardness, and if this awkwardness is erotic, it’s disarming, pimply, bad breath eroticism, the kind that emerges from low expectations, good weed and the ability to laugh at practically anything.
McGinley achieves his distinctive romanticism in a roundabout way that depends on killing any idealized ideas about people and their skin and the images they present the world. I was born in 1977, the same year as McGinley, and I spent my early twenties hanging out in New Jersey, so I feel like the world of most of his photos is a world I know and love. What sets his work apart is the little stab at utopia that McGinley is trying to provide, the kind of utopia where we don’t care if we’re gay or straight or beautiful or homely but we all dissolve into each other as a group of arms and legs and blissfully stoned minds. At his best, his work reminds me of the films of Jacques Demy, another gay dreamer who did his best work in praise of heterosexual love fantasies of both triumph (Lola, 1961) and defeat (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964).
Demy was a closeted artist of his time, while McGinley is an out gay man, or boy, who approaches his work from a very post-gay, very valuable, all-inclusive perspective. It’s no surprise that the strongest images in this new show are of women and the less interesting ones are of the sort of waif-boys that feel fatally overexposed at this point. McGinley films the boys here with either identification or desire, so that he lets them get away with “pensive” posing that feels overly indulgent of their rather put-on emotions, but with his magnificent women (who only rarely stoop to girlishness), he’s distanced enough to be intrigued by their protective strategies, impressed but not cowed by their toughness, and happy to be delighted by their playfulness. The invite to the show featured a photo of a tattooed boy furrowing his brow in self-conscious seriousness, but the iconic image by far is of a girl named India, clasping her hands in front of her and smiling as if she wants to share some secret form of pleasure. It’s a sugar rush of a photo, a “perfect girlfriend” moment in time, and I would have gladly looked at it for a while, but it was impossible to really see any of the work fifteen minutes into this madhouse opening.
Team was passing out Budweiser, so the floor started to get sticky and littered with cans awfully fast. Photographers of all ages and types were shooting away like crazy; one radio personality of some sort kept bellowing, “When McGinley gets chicks naked, it’s a win win, my friends!” I talked to a very beautiful (natch) young girl who showed me a tattoo on her wrist that read, “Mea culpa,” which made me laugh. “Oh, I’m glad you laughed, it’s supposed to be funny!” she said. “That’s the kind of thing a guy would have tattooed on his wrist,” I said, then stammered and tried to explain all the gender dissolving I saw in the photos peaking out from behind the increasingly sweaty mob of people. “Oh... is Ryan McGinley gay?” she asked. I said yes. “I didn’t know that,” she said. And I suppose you wouldn’t necessarily know that from his work, which is part of why it’s been so successful, artistically sometimes, commercially always.
The man of the hour himself dashed up from downstairs about thirty minutes in; he looked like he was wearing the same blue suit he wore to his 2008 show. As I sipped my third Budweiser, I snuck a few strategic glances at him and discovered that when he smiles, sometimes, it’s the kind of armor-like smile that fellow Jersey-boy Tom Cruise uses; it’s the sort of smile that keeps people at a remove and also expresses a kind of panic. Well, who wouldn’t be panicked by the gauntlet McGinley had to run at this opening? This is a highly ambitious artist, of course, but he’s grown so absurdly large in the mainly small-time art world that’s he’s opened himself up to vicious attacks from the less successful people in his field, which means practically everyone else. Ambitious though he is, there must be times when he wonders at how immense an industry he has become. He has said before that he wants to reach the masses with his work, but the masses are an uncontrollable and naturally hostile force, especially when they’re a thousand or more people craning their necks all around you and avidly wanting a piece of you. At one point, a girl near me grimaced and said, “For a photographer? All this? I mean, I guess it’s great...”
Finally, the everyone that knew this was somewhere made the somewhere completely unmanageable. The fire brigade was called, there were cops on the street, and I was hustled out of the building with my “Mea culpa” girl. “Are they taking us to the paddy wagon?” I asked. “This is awfully dramatic,” she laughed. Outside, loads of people were just standing around, looking at the gallery and waiting for... what? A riot? A performance? Some kind of ending? McGinley was given a bullhorn by the fire chief, who told him to get people moving, and if you can be quiet and shy with a bullhorn in your hand, McGinley was quiet and shy, and apologetic. In the New York Times today, the fire chief said he didn’t know who McGinley was, then wondered if he might be “the next Pablo Picasso.” Of course he isn’t, and of course he’s going to take flack for this opening, but the flaws and the virtues of McGinley’s work should be judged apart from all the surrounding hype of his hydra-headed commercial success.