Skin, skin everywhere. The partially or fully naked bodies rain down all around the visitor at Ryan McGinley’s latest exhibition, Yearbook, at Team Gallery in New York’s Tribeca. McGinley, hailed as “the most important photographer in America” by GQ, has amassed over 500 images of some 200 people — naked men and women — photographed in a variety of poses and sporting all kinds of expressions.
It is an exuberant collision of bodies, printed on paper, the images literally overlapping each other, on the walls and on the ceiling.
McGinley made his name photographing the young and beautiful. The GQ profile of him reveals a charmed-sounding professional life; with his models — garnered from the fashion and design scenes of New York — stripping off in his studio or on cross-country road trips. McGinley’s life, at least at a certain point, sounds pretty wild: in one interview, he reveals that he spent a few days in jail, and also being wasted and naked in a karaoke bar. His interviewer recalls the time he appeared emerging from a bathroom at a party with semen all over his face.
The GQ piece doesn’t feature tales of deranged excess, but records that McGinley’s studio has assistants who keep the models cheerful and animated, so McGinley can capture these subjects at their most open and unguarded.
In Yearbook, the models may be tattooed or have unmarked bodies, be black or white, male or female — but they all — apart from one pregnant woman — have flat stomachs, toned and muscular bodies, and sexy, chiseled features.
Notes for the show say: “Although the sheer abundance of available images renders a total ’reading’ impossible, there is never any sense of incompleteness, as each individual image functions autonomously, granting the viewer access to a delicate, once-private moment.”
And so the visitor, feeling a little self-conscious, starts examining individual images. There is the naked woman with green hair, ecstatically throwing her head back, photographed against a purple background, the young male redhead naked and declining. His uncircumcised penis looks like a perfect encased sausage. (The penises and vaginas on display are as perfectly proportioned as you’d expect.)
Like a traditional yearbook, these are all young people, captured in moments in time; and on to their faces — as the title of the show leads you to — the visitor maps on notions of the past, that present moment, and the future that awaits them. Photographs that stay in one’s mind days later include a heavily tattooed man, with the strangest but warmest cackle playing out over his lips, and the young woman flexing and scowling at the camera.
One of the best photographs features a wonderfully androgynous young person, with luxuriant long hair — what a pretty woman, you think — actually, it’s a very pretty man.
There’s a directness, joy, and playfulness of many of the faces, but not really — which is strange with all the nubile, six-packed flesh on display — a coquettishness or sexual come-on. This is nudity as lifestyle, health, openness — not seamy or steamy.
Most of the compositions come with candy-colored backgrounds, again subverting the traditional drab colors that form the backdrop of familiar yearbook pictures.
The more intriguing shots are in black and white, and — as photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe showed — the naked body, shot in black and white, can become a carnival of unexpected contrasts. His monochromatic body shots are McGinley’s most involving and time detaining; a personal favorite features a blond-haired guy, whose repose is almost statue-like in one of the black and white shots.
The nudity becomes so matter-of-fact, you begin to think how radical it would be if any of McGinley’s subjects were clothed, older, or had any body-fat. What is he trying to capture by photographing, over and over again, gorgeous young people, whether it’s in his studio or cornfields, or nightclubs? Is he attracted to them, their energy? Is it sexual? Artistic? Both? McGinley certainly likes hair: in his best shots, long hair is tousled, blown up, caught in motion, or hangs as a glossy frame to a face.
The notes to the show say the poster-style production of the show gives it a “pop art quality,” and that may be true: they have all the immediacy and disposability of very good Instagram portraits. They are the ultimate display advertisement for young people (their looks and vivacity), but McGinley’s photographs also, as the notes reasonably claim, “exist at the intersection of academic and the deeply felt — his intuitive sense of people and his extensive, ingrained knowledge of art history are equally necessary to his creative act.”
Of course, artists make all kinds of grand claims for their work, sometimes laughable ones, and you might smile when you read that, surrounded by what is essentially a lot of photographs of hot, nude young people. But looking closer at the pictures themselves, you see the young guy whose oddly grief-tinged intensity has the air of a Caravaggio. Another one of a young woman has all the poised regality of an Avedon. There are all kinds of moments of other historical time captured in these images.
The notes also talk of a “euphoric optimism” in McGinley’s pictures: “You get the feeling you could spend a happy eternity marveling at the grandeur of these seemingly limitless bodies.” I would dissent from that: the pictures are involving and sexy for sure; whatever your sexual preference you will find a type here, and the gallery-given luxury of being able to stare at them for as long as you like.
But, rather as the models are captured in a moment of pleasure (smiles vastly outnumber frowns in McGinley’s pictures), so the viewer is too: when I was there, people free-wheeled around images. Rather like a yearbook, Yearbook encourages you to dip in and out, to have your attention suddenly derailed by something unexpected, and of course to look at bodies, which even when they are uniformly toned, are still astonishing specimens. Day to day, we mostly see each other clothed, and so there is a very basic pleasure seeing McGinley find the delight and life in flesh that he does.
Yet with all that flesh and all those appendages, it’s strange that you spend the most amount of time looking at the faces — and how nakedly emotional they are. Where does McGinley go next? Can he ever move on from these hot, young, naked people? For all his assured skill in capturing them, you wish he would. Even extreme beauty — and even the best of bodies and most involving pictures of them — can become repetitive.