If you’re a spelunker or a speleologist, someone who frequents caves for fun or for scientific research, then you probably know about moonmilk. It’s a creamy white deposit of fine crystals, a limestone precipitate whose most notable property is that it doesn’t harden or turn to stone. Make a handprint in moonmilk and a trace of you will be preserved, an instant tactile graffito, by an elixir that resists petrification. An ideal metaphor in waiting, then, for Ryan McGinley, whose photographic series Moonmilk (2008-9)—featuring beautiful men and women in weathered caverns and grottos, bathed in lysergic coloured lights—is a richly romantic yet bittersweet meditation on what it means to be young, on time and timelessness.
Since the late 1990s, the Ramsey, New Jersey-born artist has built his photography on engineering situations that disclose the radiant energies and transient, transporting beauties of youth. His early photography, gravitating to skaters, graffiti artists and his own hedonistic friends—see, for example, Dash Bombing, 2000, featuring the artist Dash Snow tagging the side of a building on some elevated spot, city lights winking blurrily and romantically beneath him—saw McGinley characterised as someone who’d absorbed the subculture-valorising aesthetics of Larry Clark and Nan Goldin but stripped out the angst, the hard drugs, the deaths (at least until Snow himself OD’d in 2009).
This approach proved popular. In 2003, aged 25, four years after he’d self-published his first book of photographs, the pointedly titled and now seriously rare The Kids Are Alright (titled after a 1965 song by The Who; this wasn’t to be the last nod to the 1960s in his work, as we’ll see), McGinley became one of the youngest artists ever to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
A couple of years later, he inaugurated the approach that would become a signature of his art (and that would lead, in time, to Moonmilk): corralling a group of friends or models, packing them in a van and taking a summer road trip across America, photographing them carefree and, invariably, nude—and constructing pretexts for improvised actions—as he went. The primary characteristic of these annual series of work, at least until very recently, has been a pervasive sweetness; even, as has been widely remarked, something like a prelapsarian innocence.
Where pain exists here, it operates as an almost theatrical device that throws pleasure into bright relief. It’s a world where a model can be fondled, not gored, by a 450lb black bear (Untitled (Black Bear), 2007). Or compare, for example, McGinley’s Tim (Black Eye), 2005, with its bruised but smiling star flanked by silhouetted male nudes at dusk, with Nan Goldin’s unflinching exposure of domestic abuse, Nan one month after being battered, 1984, the sort of photograph that looks like legal evidence.
Since 2004 or so, indeed, McGinley’s art hasn’t had much connection to that of gritty types like Goldin. He’s spoken of his interest in cross-country photographic projects like Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) and Richard Avedon’s In the American West (1985), but if anything one might root the hedonic feel of his road-trip work in the photographs of the artist Jack Pierson, who, as McGinley revealed in a diary he kept for Interview at the time he was making the Moonmilk images, is a friend of his. In the early 90s, Pierson—whose book title Angel Youth might easily be one of McGinley’s—patented a mode of diaristic, intimate photography that thrummed with a peripatetic, escapist, on-the-road ethos, full of highways, flowers, handsome—and often naked—young men and gorgeously intense, saturated colours. McGinley has taken this approach and complicated it, both technically and emotionally.
As a photographer, he’s an improviser and a tactician at once: he picks subjects with strong personalities and then creates scenarios they have to deal with, in unpredictable, revealing ways: not just travelling, but arraying themselves in groups in a tree (e.g. Tree # 1, 2003), or falling, or amid fireworks, or underwater, or—in McGinley’s recent photographs from the Somewhere Place series, 2011—being thrown off-kilter by co-starring with hawks and kittens and snakes.
It’s hard to say what the ratio of real life to theatre is here, and to a degree it doesn’t matter. McGinley’s art, although it has other dimensions, looks immediately like a proposal: that idyllic communities and, in a larger sense, the potential for happiness, can and do exist. Here they are, in microcosm, living for a few months in McGinley’s Ford E350 15-passenger van, crisscrossing the United States; here they are communing with the natural world, with water and rock and flora and fauna. (McGinley himself, you sense, doesn’t have to theorise about his work: rather, he’s reflecting his upbringing—the youngest child in his family by over a decade, with seven siblings, he says he’s always been comfortable around big groups of people and, indeed, has chosen models who remind him of his brothers and sisters.)
The rub is that—because we know youth and beauty are temporary—the pleasure pictured feels quite explicitly fleeting, always being frozen by the artist’s Leica before it goes away or turns into its opposite. McGinley has various manners of articulating this, and the Moonmilk series might be his most effusive.
The figures he photographs here are, unusually for him, almost swallowed by their surroundings, by the literally subterranean world they’ve elected to inhabit: the vast and majestic caves they’re sited in. The naked figure in Gold Breakdown, 2009, for example, sprawled on a vast boulder, is a tiny detail in an epic view of striated rock and monstrous stones, assumedly lit with golden spotlights. The figure is alive, we know, but s/he might almost be dead; the flesh is young, peachy, elastic, we assume—this is a McGinley photograph, after all—but its vivacity plays against another ‘skin’: the fissured, craggy textures of the rocks, which have been here virtually forever and aren’t going anywhere fast. The same might be said of the brooding figure at the waterside in Marcel (Hidden Reflection), 2009, a tiny temporal blip compared to the stalactites hanging from the cave roof above him. Eternity and the moment, here, are folded together.
The images also collapse time in different ways: they reference the epic landscape photography of, say, Ansel Adams and the skin-on-rock textural contrasts of Edward Weston, demotic naturist photography of the 1930s, and—throughout, in the use of coloured lights—the frissons of the 1960s. There’s a psychedelic undertow to this series that peaks in works like Jack (White Sides), 2009, with its Bacchus-like, saucer-eyed youth washed in hot red and looking like a stoned ingénue from an arthouse movie; India (Gypsum Burst), 2008, in which a warm-toned study of a pensive model fades into near-abstraction; and Wes (Scarlet Split), 2009, with its pale blue nude peeking through a slit-like aperture in an ambiguous surface that’s flooded with trippy roseate light. There are also, repeatedly, moments when the interior of the cave folds together with a notion of an elevated, even spiritual mental interiority, as in Jonas and Marcel (Blue Altar), 2009, with its twin supplicants sitting on a natural stone dais, gazing into water at distorted reflections, partaking of Christianity and ancient paganism at once.
A couple of years on from its completion, Moonmilk now looks like a potential hinge in McGinley’s art. There are refusals there: in the models’ turning inward, in their communion with thoughts we can’t know. More generally, the series is not as joyously unbridled as his earlier work, though it is more literally ‘sublime’. And it’s about slowness—the laborious setting up of lights, sustained poses—where he’d previously appeared drawn to velocity and instantaneity.
McGinley has spoken of his admiration for Bernice Abbot—her ability to work through one large photographic project, drop it, and start another very different one—and has shown a willingness to restructure his own art at intervals: shooting indoor portraits in black and white, for example in the 2010 series Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. In 2011, for the Somewhere Place series, McGinley darkened his emotional hues substantially. The Boy with the Thorns in His Side—the Smiths song referenced in the title a reminder that McGinley once spent months on the road, photographing the crowds at Morrissey concerts—lingers on a male torso covered in scratches, ambiguously suggesting that the sitter has either raced naked through brambles or been assaulted.
Figures seen elsewhere in mid-fall, a motif of McGinley’s work since the mid-‘00s, now seem more ominous. The figure dousing himself in a waterfall in Rust River has a bloodied ass. The swimmer in Taylor (Rushing River) (2011), featured in McGinley’s forthcoming exhibition Wandering Comma at Alison Jacques Gallery in London, appears to be drowning beneath golden spume.
These last two are very beautiful photographs but also highly discomforting ones, since almost all potential context has been edited out. They remind us that McGinley is a storyteller of sorts, or at least an adept fabricator of opening chapters. We don’t know how Tim’s black eye came about (or, in another photograph, Lily’s) or why the receiver is happy; where these more recent wounds came from; or what, really, those figures are doing communing in the caves.
If we want to disinter a quality of happiness from McGinley’s archives of his road trips, that’s there for us—along with a certain abstractedness and lack of geographical grounding context that might facilitate our seeing them as metaphors for some elusive, generalised state of being, not as other people having a good time while we don’t. If we want to read ominousness into these more recent photographs, we can do that too: again, the mix of detailed specificity and vagueness acts to spur the imagination.
In this sense, McGinley’s carefully abridged photographs are sharp exercises in reflexivity, as much about how we meet images (or collections of images) halfway as they are about what they appear to record: a mode of photography, arguably, that never hardens or turns to stone. That said, however, it’s not necessary to venture into the dark caves of aesthetic theory in order to engage with them. We can stop where we came in, while we’re still in the light—with youth, beauty and roads to freedom, and how one might discuss those things today and still be smart about it. Ryan McGinley knows.
Ryan McGinley – Marcel (Hidden Reflection), 2009.
Courtesy the Artist, Alison Jacques Gallery, London and Team Gallery, New York.