The Indelible Iconography of Ryan McGinness
Ryan McGinness with his Limited Edition Bottle of Hennessy, Courtesy PMG
In the past few years, Western culture seems to have reverted to pre-lingual tendencies with the proliferation of pictographic communication. “Love” is , “anger” is , “celebration” is , “pride” is . For artist Ryan McGinness, this is nothing new.
“There’s something authoritative about signs and icons, and I wanted to subvert that,” he said, nestled in a corner at midtown steakhouse Quality Meats.
For years, McGinness has produced painting, sculpture and site-specific work frequently utilizing bold icons and bright colors, most recently his series of “black hole” paintings, which he calls a “subversive symbol of wealth and luxury”, and which grace a new limited edition bottle of Hennessy. The series of elegant black holes are juxtaposed with colorful Boschian imagery of people fucking skulls and committing autoerotic asphyxiation. But since the brand wants to communicate aspirational aspects, obviously, the bottle design is light on skull fucking. There is a twist, though: the layered, multi-colored filigrees coalescing in a black hole illuminate under a blacklight. “It made sense in the club environment,” he said.
Where is the subversion in corporate collaborations, though? “I knew everyone would be scrutinizing, ‘What’s going on?’ I knew that I wanted to communicate with aspirational qualities, but I don’t really like doing this and doing that, being disingenuous. But I was like, “Alcohol? Perfect.”
Limited Edition Bottle of Hennessy, Courtesy PMG
He’s built a bridge between himself and the brand, making sense of the collaboration in a Warholian vein, which is to be expected given the impact the Pope of Pop has had on his career. A fan since he was a child, he studied at Carnegie Mellon (Warhol’s alma mater) and interned as a curatorial assistant at the Warhol Museum. But, as he’s worked in the same tradition of Pop Art, he’s seen Warhol’s true intentions be obfuscated as we progress past his time. “A lot of the sarcasm and satire have been lost in recent years,” he lamented.
McGinness still holds out some humor and irony in his work, though. His Instagram, for example, skewers the platform; instead of behind-the-scenes photos or filtered pictures of sunsets that typically litter newsfeeds, each image he posts is a black circle with a cryptic quote or design in the center. Each dot, in actuality, is part of a halftone that makes up a black and white image of McGinness removing a white fright wig. The act is a Warholian, anti-artifice gesture, a removal of a disguise. “Warhol was all about being fake – he wore a costume. But this is genuine.”
Untitled (Black Hole, Fluorescent Yellow), 2008, acrylic on linen, 72 in. dia. (182.9 cm dia.) exhibited with adhesive fluorescent vinyl on wall under black light via ryanmcginness.com
He’s also began work on a series of paintings inspired by metadata, wherein he depicts an original painting hanging on a studio wall. Similar to Thomas Struth’s photographs of paintings in museums, these meta-paintings are a new twist on authenticity and the reproduction of images.
When he needs a break from painting, he ventures across the street from his studio to Landmark Diner, one of the last remaining original diners in the city. A slice of down-to-earth Americana, it reflects the air of McGinness: not pretentious or haughty as is the typical demeanor of many artists (especially if they’re white, male and straight), friendly, warm and unobtrusively brilliant.
He chronicles his thoughts and ideas meticulously in a series of identical sketchbooks, and currently he’s up to over 200. “Ideas are stickier when you touch the piece of paper. I like making things.” It shows how personal his work really is, and what anyone would say about corporate collaborations, or how he’s not using Instagram correctly, doesn’t really matter to him in the end. He continued, looking down after taking a sip of Hennessy, “make work like nobody cares.”