Friday, September 11, 2009

Ryan McGinley Speaks


Ryan McGinley: Jonas and Marcel (Blue Altar)
Ryan McGinley: Jonas and Marcel (Blue Altar) Alison Jacques Gallery

Surrounded by a heaving, drinking, swooning, sweating blanket of admirers and professional artworld partygoers, Ryan McGinley has come a long way from the caves he shot for his latest show, Moonmilk, which opened at Alison Jacques Gallery last night. He finds it hard to move without being papped or kissed or having a catalogue thrust into his hand for a dedication. He thought about Jonah and the whale when immersed in taking these pictures, so is it like being inside a whale now, at the opening, with churning crowds and this feeding frenzy?


The relevance of the whale to his work is that he wanted to know “what it would be like to be inside of a body or inside of a heart”, and these pictures are both satisfactory and contradictory answers: naked figures of brittle young things hold extended poses in unadulterated North American caves, molecules rattling round a vast universe yet closely trapped by the frame.

Inside of a heart is easier: McGinley, 31, a New Jersey native and strikingly, boyishly handsome, makes these photographs tender, the youths exposed by their nakedness yet not punished for it, an Edenic state among million-year old caves. Their colours suggest otherworldliness, with Warholian turquoise and pink and mustard fading in and out, and they have the exquisite textures of the cave walls, brought out by a matte finish. Bright strata are outlined and undulate like in a Bridget Riley.

It’s the intimacy and antique virginity – and the possibilities these entail – which McGinley values: “I like caves because they’re untouched for millions of years. They’re somewhere I can go that’s just a place, that’s meditative. You take blackness and you add a person and all this colour to it.”

Meditation is a quality present in these works which has been noticeably absent in his earlier ones – “I was always doing running and jumping and falling and lots of action in my work and I wanted to slow my role” – which have the same nude youths but frolicking and caught mid-movement. It was the movement which fascinated McGinley, but now it is the stillness. Where does the new direction come from? “Honestly, I always try to challenge myself and I don’t want to be an artist that just does one thing.”

ItRyan McGinley, Blood Falls is no criticism to say that McGinley has not yet established a single style or a thesis: he is following paths which interest him. It’s therefore all the more noteworthy that he has already been lionised by the art establishment: the youngest artist to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art (2003), aged 23, thanks to some assiduous and creative self-publicity; the Kunsthalle Vienna (2006); the New York Times’ Oscar portfolio (2007).

If they were relying on McGinley producing more of the same, sticking to an outrageously successful formula, they have been disappointed, although his obscuring of faces remains. Does he feel any expectation for how his work should be? “Oh no, those days are over. There was a time when I was worried about that, but that was a long time ago. I know now – I have a path and I know my journey, what I’m going to do. I’m not worried about it.”

Perhaps the best piece in the show is Blood Falls, a small human figure surrounded by a starburst of red droplets which coalesce and darken as they expand into a scarlet colour-field. It is the rain-shower of the water, the distance of the figure, the hue which conspire to make it unexpectedly moving. And that’s McGinley: amid freewheeling movement or subterranean grandeur, a touching human sympathy.

Moonmilk is at the Alison Jacques Gallery till Oct 8.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Bonds of blood and snow

There is no author quite like Michael Chabon, a virtuoso who can pick genres which would usually mix like oil and water and make them a thrilling, cohesive combination. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a good example, putting a noirish thriller, conspiracy theorising, exile, counterfact (a Jewish homeland in Alaska), chess and familial dramas into a compelling, moving mix which is also great literature.

The plot is sufficiently complex that any explanation will result in greater confusion, but let's just say a bum has been murdered in a deadbeat hotel in the godforsaken corner of Alaska that is now (but not for much longer) the Jewish homeland. Detective Meyer Landsman, a man with an alcohol problem, an ex-wife problem and a troubling sense of duty that can't lead to any good, undertakes the investigation, which leads him to an ultra-orthodox and ultra-corrupt Jewish sect.

What shines through the Yiddish Policemen's Union is exactly what made the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a sterling work (tho' K&C is still supreme): Chabon does not shy away from the darkest moments as Landsman has to investigate his sister's death and contemplate the Jews' imminent exile and whether god is in fact beneficent, but he mixes it with a wry Yiddish irony and a vivid evocation of place, in this case the snow which carpets everything for good or ill.

What could easily be mawkish or empty philosophising makes perfect sense in the heads of his fully-drawn characters. For example, a bereaved mother married to the capo di tutti capi - in this case a 'black-hat' rabbi - ponders where her son went wrong:
But there was always a shortfall, wasn't there? Between the match that the Holy One, blessed be He, envisioned and the reality of the situation under the chuppah. Between commandment and observance, heaven and earth, husband and wife, Zion and Jew. They called that shortfall "the world."
Doubt and faith co-exist exactly in that short paragraph - Chabon is able to describe a difficult idea and make it beautiful at the same time.

There is also perfect noirish narration:
His jaws snap together, making each tooth ring out with its own pure tone as the impact of his ass against the ground conducts its Newtonian business with the rest of his skeleton.
Perhaps even more to his credit, Chabon managed to keep this noirish action in some sort of vaguely comprehensible frame. Everyone knows that Raymond Chandler couldn't plot for toffee (rather, wasn't interested in it), but Chabon ties together his threads into the sort of plot you wish weren't true but can still believe.

After reading K&C, I didn't think the Yiddish Policemen's Union could live up to it, and it's a different book in many ways: K&C will break your heart (if you have one) over and over, whereas YPU is a slower-burn, but it still burns - all the way down to the butt-end of the soul.

Julie & Julia

From the new site

If you tried to cross chefs, romantic comedy and cyberspace, you might end up with a YouTube video of Nigella Lawson recreating the diner scene from When Harry Met Sally. As much fun as that would be, it would hardly justify two hours of screen time. That’s where Julie & Julia comes in.

From the same pen as When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron, come the stories of Julia Child (Meryl Streep), the diplomat’s wife who brought French cooking back to America, and Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a frustrated government worker who starts a blog where she records cooking her way through all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s monumental Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Based on Powell’s blog and Child’s memoir, Ephron (who also directs) intertwines these women’s lives, jumping from Child’s revelatory first sole meuniere in Paris, where Streep looks almost inconsolable at her inability to make sufficiently satisfactory moans of delight, to the Queens apartment where Powell and her husband (Chris Messina) live above a pizzeria and Powell cooks away her stress at her job, fielding calls relating to Ground Zero. (Her story is set in 2002.)

Streep – whose comic talents are well-established but often forgotten – raises belly laughs just by incarnating Child, lanky and not that graceful with her oddly-rhythmic high-pitched voice, which bounces up and down off successive syllables, like a hysterical glockenspiel. She manages all the sly glances and fluttering hand-waves of a woman who knows that the French are out to get her yet responds with Yankee bonhomie. Stanley Tucci as her husband Paul is a picture of devotion and support.

Adams, on the other hand, just has to look somewhat fed up at her tedious life and stalled literary career, and occasionally excited when a recipe goes well. It is not her fault that her role is not stretching, and so most of her energy goes into a lovey-doviness with her husband, who is tolerant of her narcissistic quest and grateful for its side effects. She is given, however, the second best lobster scene in film (after Annie Hall).

Given how difficult is to make eating in films realistic, Julie & Julia is pleasingly unvarnished: people talk with their mouths full, stuff their faces, and turn the corners of their mouths up in private delight. Still, two hours is a long time to watch becrumbed lips, and the second half - with added 'drama' - drags.

Perhaps more interesting than the content of their cooking is the fact that Child and Powell are turning inside themselves (even if food can be a source of pleasure to and interaction with others). Child, after World War Two, and Powell, after 9/11, have both had enough of reality: they learn to explore their own interests and talents, both as a way of consuming time and a way of finding fulfilment.

When they spend this much time in the kitchen, they seem to reject the world outside. What that really makes Julie & Julia is not gastroporn, which it could easily have become, but a fight for the self which happens to have some gratuitous baking shots. Perhaps this seems too serious for a film about cooking, but it is much more than that: it is cooking as a window to the soul.