Women appear titularly in three recently opened, important art shows. First came Alice Neel‘s Women, a survey of the late painter’s portraiture at David Zwirner. Over at Sean Kelly, women are new to the brush of Kehinde Wiley’s gorgeous, history-restaging oils in Economy of Grace (a fresh series of his famous dude-works are getting more attention at the Jewish Museum). Last, and dealing least traditionally with the female as form, is Ryan McGinness with Women: Sketches and Solutions.
McGinness, 40, appears to design artwork rather than make it. He studied at Carnegie Mellon because Andy Warhol went there; within days of his graduation, in 1994, the Warhol Museum opened. He worked there as a curatorial assistant for years before earning his own Warhol comparisons with slick hieroglyphics, strip club installations, and Standard Hotel collabs. In 2002, he had a Printed Matter show titled “Products Are the New Art.” This adequately presaged a Western art world with a Hirst-Koons administration and more interest in Taurean materiality than most kinds of action. Right though he was, and not exempt from his own judgment, McGinness would like now to amend the maxim: “Products,” he tells me, “are the new art.”
We are standing in Gering & Lopez, the Madison Ave. gallery where the first of his two Women shows is hung. Here the graphite women—friends, friends of friends, art models, all named in the works—are products inasmuch as they are a multiplication of expressive parts. They’ve been chosen as subjects not to be subjugated (certainly McGinness, the smilingest artist I’ve met, doesn’t seem like he could subjugate a fly), but because their parts are so variable. Women are the life figures most interesting, McGinness says, to draw. He has drawn them without adornment—or adoration. The idea that a woman’s body is simply more beautiful than a man’s has long been the unblushing excuse for women as decoration, but this artist doesn’t seem much interested in beauty as an end. These works lay bare the process of sketching, then painting by computer-brush, then silkscreening in so many layers that, conversely, a dead-flat silhouette is achieved. Means is the end, then. Process, the point.
“I think it’s important to show your work,” he says. Later: “I’m doing, and I think it’s important to note, drawings of drawings. I’ve always found it valuable in developing solutions, in mathematical solutions, that you have to show your work, and it is therefore undeniable. The solution is undeniable.”
The problem is perception, and the perception of McGinness in the art world has been—well, rarely unfavourable, but rather flat. By drawing from life in a great, dated tradition, McGinness places himself in a far longer art lineage than Warhol’s (go back to Chauvet cavemen, go back to Paul Klee). He doesn’t worry openly about things like legacy or market value, only about whether his art will find a good home while also making a good-enough one for himself, his wife, and his adorable baby. (“I don’t think about art as an investment,” he says, when the market comes up. “As an artist, your best investment is you, so any money you make goes back into the art.”)
But no artist doesn’t want respect. If art is now a product, McGinness with his production is going to prove the price. That’s why this work—on which he and his assistant spend ten or twelve regimented hours a day—is meticulous, exacting, transparent, anti-myth. It’s not art about women, it’s art about art. “It’s figuring out picture-making,” he says.
I suggest that the taut abstraction, the desexualization, of these forms doesn’t make them less female or less—necessarily—objectified. Besides, as subject, “women” is rather broad. “No pun intended,” he quips. But seriously: apply the old rule of reversal. What kind of art show is titled just “Men?”
It’s something to consider in the cab ride down, accompanied by McGinness’ favourite art model (and artist herself) Meira Robinson, to see the second and complementary show at Charles Bank. Here we have blacklight paintings, vis-a-vis uptown’s black-and-white drawings, and they give off—in person—a heat irreproducible by the computer screens that make them possible. Maybe here’s an answer to the rash of “Women” shows that isn’t just “sexist atavism.” It has to do with the grotesqueness you get from surgically dividing bodies into fuckwithable parts, splicing them into graphic abstractions. You feel it more in paint than you do in pen. It undercuts the beauty-mythologizing of female form by making its representations at once clinical, visceral, and ugly, and all that’s more shocking than nudity.
The one un-blacklit grouping of images—perhaps because of its pastel-flesh pink (also, white; race is perhaps a factor)—reminds me of Willem de Kooning circa “Woman I.” Robinson nods eagerly. McGinness merely neglects to disagree, asking instead if I want to see the sculptures downstairs. I go, but don’t care: the bright metal-and-auto-paint sculptures are derived from vector shapes and derivative of songs about women and cars. That pink paint’s really the thing. It makes me understand why I’m drawn to McGinness now, even though his blacklights and Basquiat-lite semiotics had never felt compelling. The drawings uptown are correct in their solutions of representational problems (and problematic representations), but the paintings downtown, while disturbing-ish, feel more right.
Photo of Ryan McGinness courtesy of David X Prutting/BFAnyc.com