Ryan McGinley – Nudity/Art/Pornography
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“When I was younger,” said McGinley, “I was just a dumb kid doing drugs, getting fucked up and taking pictures, and now, I somehow turned my lifestyle into a profession. I don’t know how the hell that happened, but you know, I can pay my rent, so…” (NY Times 2010) Born on the 17th of October 1977 in Ramsey, New York, Ryan McGinley began his career taking pictures of his downtown friends.
A day-to-day documentation of his generation’s raw, and sometimes-delirious antics skateboard, drinking, taking drugs and having sex. There was a rebellious and reckless theme to his work, which perhaps stems from his strict Catholic upbringing and his much older siblings – he was “raised by wolves”. He would often travel to Manhattan on his own, against his mother’s will, to skateboard with his friends and found him self in jail on more than one occasion.
“For me the reason to go out to a party was about photography” said McGinley. Despite this he was a rising star, and at 25 his first show made him the youngest exhibitor at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and it was not long before he was honored as Young Photographer of the Year. Since then his career has been moving at a fast pace, and at 34 his highlights have included Levis advertisements, short films, the Vancouver Olympc games and the cover for Sigur Ros’ 5th album.
Much of McGinley’s work revolves around nudity, however, his photographs provide a view of the human body as an object of art and the vibrant use of warm colors and lack of focus make his pictures seem inherently honest and trustworthy, almost because of their amateurish appearance, idealistic subject matter and consistent inaccuracy.
There is an illusion of timelessness in his photos and some feel that they could have been taken In the 1970’s. In the project Irregular Regular, he exposed all his negatives to a variety of colours, making hospitable tones.
With such a strong theme of nudity throughout his career, we ask when does nudity become art or art become pornography?
The naked human form has been a central topic in art since the Greeks carved naked statues of athletes 4000 years ago, but even in today’s liberal society images of the flesh can still cause controversy. The difference between art, nudity and pornography has always been a culturally subjective issue, where the interpretation of the viewer is key to its classification.
By definition pornography is any sexually explicit writing, image or video with the intention of arousing sexual desire, however, even with the absence of intention, the arousal of sexual desire is not entirely under control from either the artist or viewer. It is the cultural background of the viewer, which has the biggest influence on their perspective.
In his photographs McGinley tries to show the human body in a natural way, an example of which is the photograph “Highway” (2007). The photograph, showing a number of people running across the highway naked, is taken from one of his road trips crossing the American continent in two vans with his friends, stopping at several researched spots – sunny beaches, motels and roadsides. In a recent interview with the New York Times, McGinley explained, ‘I got to the point where I couldn’t wait for the pictures to happen anymore. I was wasting time, and so I started making pictures happen.’
He changed from documentation of spontaneity to the “set up” events. The photograph was used as an album cover for Sigur Ros’ “Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust”. But why is this photo – showing a scene somewhere between nudism and naturism, with a sense of freedom, joy and restless youth – culturally acceptable for widespread distribution on something as visible as an album cover? In Iceland there is a celebration called “Kuyviasungerk”, which means “happy times”.
It is one week long and on the Friday, the festival ends with naked run across the quads. Perhaps this is the reason why Sigur Ros chose the photograph for their album cover and McGinley’s himself as the director for their music video. This culturally specific event is something that makes the photograph more acceptable as a modern form of art. Another reason maybe that both Ryan and many members of the band Sigur Ros are openly Gay and vocal about their views on nudity and erotica? In either case, the perception of nudity as art is directly influenced by the cultural feelings of the group or society.
The presence of nudity and in particular the specific use of his friends – who are happy to be photographed running naked in a field – as subjects in their natural environment, separates McGinley’s photographs from those of other amateurs. After all anyone can take over exposed photos in a field. It is perhaps this subject matter that also draws the line between art and pornography, along with the 21st century western perception of sexuality – people are now sexy as well as beautiful, and intimacy is a more public acceptable.
“I think that my photos are the least sexual thing,” says McGinley. “I don’t think there’s much sexuality going on in the images, I think it’s just an investigation of the human body, and I think when people work with me that’s not something that factors into the process of making the photographs. I think that if someone offers me that, like if a girl gives me pouty lips or a really sexy look, I’ll actually tell her, ‘That’s not something I’m interested in. I just want you to be yourself and kind of act natural.'”
People associate Ryan with movie “ Kids” director Larry Clark, and indeed they way has crossed in 90ies and Ryan got inspired after seeing movie about young teenagers life, but instead of showing the brutal side of it, he showed the happy “hippies” live style. Sex is a strong and emotional subject to work with, you will get people who love it and people who think its impropriate. It’s so much easier to work with it now then fifty years ago when social groups associated sex with punk rockers, hippies and bummers. So when did the nudity became popular, and where is the line? Looking at “old” art as Michelangelo’s David we see naked sculpture totally exposed to the public, but looking at naked photography we should feel guilty and ashamed because it have been illegal.
Is it because medium has progressed to photography from oil and canvas? Or is it because it shows the real life? People might hate Ryan’s piece “Highway”, just because they cant look on it as an art object but as gay, sex and drugs, they cant see the naturalism the start point, why should we be ashamed, we were born naked and he just tried to show the happiness of the life. Nowadays there is nothing to be embarrassed, everything is about the taste, you might like it or you might hate it, that doesn’t mean that you are perv if you like naked photography or paintings or any of art shapes.
People have been judging everything, clothes, art, relationships, everything for too long time, it have to stop. Judging art just makes us narrower, it eats something what we could enjoy, it stops the artist to express them self. We are different, the same as art is different, you can’t judge something what you don’t like because your words can kill it. How many pieces of art never saw daylight because some person has said that it’s not an art.
Mr McGinley says, “Sex is a big part of my life,” he muses; however “I go out of my way to avoid pictures that are erotic.” During his laborious editing procedures, he’ll remark to himself “there’s too much sex in that picture,” and he’ll pass on such images, preferring to disclose feelings that are less obviously sexual in their effect. Lots of his work have never been seen, it might be more emotional more sharper work, but he wouldn’t show it of a fear what would people think.
Ryan McGinley creates is own world, his playful constructed “Eden”, were naked body is presented as freedom and forests, fields and animals shows the natural side of humans body. McGinley’s world, “a world,” in his words, “that doesn’t exist,” does obtrude its persuasive fictions through his artistry and the vital yet understated attractiveness of the people who inhabit his improvised universe.
In his world, people don’t look so stunningly beautiful that it distances the viewer from identifying motion in his work. He is one of whose sexual experience is different and might be wider then most of the society has, and that makes him special and unique. There is one big good think about his work, people will love it or hate it, but it will express the emotions. “Highway” shows us what we would like to do if we would have a chance, if we wouldn’t care what everyone else thinks.