Just Pretty, Naked and On Drugs? 

Ryan McGinley I Know Where Summer Goes at Team Gallery

Ryan McGinley’s critics describe the narrative behind his photographs like this: “My friends are pretty. We get naked in the country. Usually there are drugs. Rad! Subversive!” That his 30-plus photographs of nudes in undeveloped landscapes, currently on display at Team Gallery, might be as vapid as the lifestyle they depict certainly holds weight as a criticism, even if McGinley’s acclaim comes from his ability to transcend the documentary youth culture genre. Earlier photographs — including a picture of a young man riding his bike taken from above in 2000, a 2004 image of a nude woman sipping a drink from a straw in the back of a moving truck, and a number of silhouetted figures captured in the midst of falling — evade the accusations of overly narcissistic photography frequently attached to like-minded photographer Nan Goldin, and at least some of the moral depravity for which Larry Clark has been criticized. At their best, McGinley’s flat, unassuming representations of friends and models exhibit a rare honesty and uniqueness, arguably expanding the lexicon of gay photography.

Of course, part of the excitement of these photographs comes from the fact that their attributes are seemingly at odds with a slightly staged look. As former Whitney curator of photography Sylvia Wolf wisely explained last year to the New York Times, “His subjects are performing for the camera and exploring themselves with an acute self-awareness that is decidedly contemporary. They are savvy about visual culture, acutely aware of how identity can be not communicated but created.”

Given the fact that many of these photographs were partly arranged to begin with, it’s not too surprising that McGinley might grow tired of waiting for a picture to happen, a change he noted in the same Times article quoted above. The question of how much the artist gains from this, given that the narrative remains essentially the same, plays out negatively, since much of the work in his latest show looks overly scenestery and contrived. Even the most successful shots, Ann (Windy Truck), Brennan (Clear Poncho) and Coley (injured), look a little too posed, even if the latter two do a reasonable job at juxtaposing alluring textures: skin with both unexpected synthetic and natural materials. The weakest works, Together Running, an obscured “nudes in mountain/Where’s Waldo” photograph, and virtually anything from the cliché round of women surrounded by fireworks, leaves a viewer wondering why so much plotting should be required for such poorly conceived shots.

Naturally, Team Gallery would have the viewer think otherwise, the press release describing the artist’s change in process as a move transforming him from one of “the hottest young photographers”, to a more “serious artist with a rare gift”. Conveniently, Ryan McGinley’s new approach exchanges hype for the increased salability of an established photographic working method. While it’s unlikely this aspect of the photographs represent the only rationale for the evolution of the artist’s art-making practice, certainly it wouldn’t be the first time we saw the market negatively influence an artist under the guise of loftier purposes. Either way, the change hasn’t been an experiment yielding overly positive results. Perhaps we’re simply looking at a transition period, though in which case, however, we have a year or two to wait before his next body of work is produced and these questions can be answered.

I Know Where Summer Goes on view at teamgal.com

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