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.”
It 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.