From ‘crappy’ to snappy: Ryan McGinness offers a personal tour through his artistic process and his latest show

McGinness sharing his trade secrets (Emily Gaynor)
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“The drawing process, to me, represents a series of failings. So I’m not necessarily proud of the initial drawings and, in fact, they are kind of crappy.”

So said New York-based artist Ryan McGinness, giving a personal walk-through of his latest show, Women: Sketches & Solutions, currently at Gering & López Gallery in midtown. It was a behind-the-scenes glimpse at a show that is itself a behind-the-scenes glimpse into his artistic process and those “crappy” initial stages of a project (the finished product of which can be seen downtown, at Charles Bank Gallery).

McGinness said this is his “quiet, tame, very considered exhibition.” Best known for his hyper-saturated black-light graphic paintings, typographic installations, and sculptures, the work in this show has no color at all. “This is half of the show,” McGinness said, “We are looking at the sketches, the drawings, the process. It’s all black and white. What I do with these final drawings is what I’m showing downtown and all that work is electric and show with black light and it’s the complete opposite.” McGinness has staked his reputation on appropriating pop, low brow imagery and placing it into a broader art historical framework. He’s been called the “21st century Andy Warhol.”

“The whole Women series came about because I was very interested to make very contemporary contribution to figure drawing, the history of depicting figure,” he explained. It also provides an opportunity to exploit the female form in the same way he’s exploited popular consumer images. The female form is amplified in this context. Color doesn’t distract from the lines and proportions sketched of the female body.

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One artist, a recent graduate from Dartmouth, came to see the show and she was skeptical about the use of female imagery. “I don’t really go see shows on the female form. The whole male gaze thing," she said, “[the] whole culture is, like, so oppressive.”

McGinness recently exhibited work from the Women series in a strip club, painting strippers in U.V.-reactive paint and having them dance in black light as part of the “show.”

Most artists have the benefit of being dead before their unfinished, preparatory, or otherwise ephemeral—and, in some cases, “crappy”—work is exhibited. Peter Paul Rubens was famously guarded about his drawings. He didn’t want anyone to witness “his sweat and toil.”

Over the past three or four years, McGinness has produced some three hundred sketch studies for his Women series. But rather than exhibit the originals, he created works about how he makes his works. “It’s a very deliberately made presentation,” he said, adding, “it’s a very convoluted way of making a point.” The point is he wants everyone to see his "sweat and toil," and perhaps buy some of it too.

The event was organized by the Drawing Center to drum up support among young members.

“If you’re not a member this is a great example of the programming that we do,” said Nicole Goldberg, Director of Development at the Drawing Center, as she introduced McGinnis to the intimate group of about fifteen guests (mostly women.) McGinness, wearing loose black cargo pants, scuffed-up Adidas sneakers, and a paint-smeared white shirt directed the group through his work. He was buoyant, even borderline kooky among the well-heeled, older, uptown art crowd on hand. His face seemed elastic as he spoke. His eyes widened, cartoon-like, when he listened to questions. Someone asked if he thought about race when he was making the work and McGinness, visibly caught off-guard, said “Race!?” and paused for a moment before agreeing that, particularly as black-on-white and white-on-black images, race could conceivably be an issue in the work.

McGinness had started the tour by giving a rundown of the long and arduous studio process that led to the images on view.

“The initial stage is done from a drawing from models. And then after I’m done I will go back and later make drawings of the drawings,’ he said, “And then when I get to the final sketch, I will scan [it] and use that as a template to make an entirely new digital drawing. And then I’d use that to make a piece of film. I’ll use that film to make a screen. I’ll use that screen to make what you’re looking at—the final stage, which is a silkscreen.”

Normally, McGinness explained, he makes his preliminary and study drawings in sketchbooks, but this time he drew on paper ready for framing and exhibition, aware from the outset that he’d make a show of the whole process. Instead of a studio tour, he orchestrated works that mimic the process he goes through in his studio. And they are, naturally, for sale.

He selected four process drawings per model, he said, to show the progression from gestural figure sketch to abstract silkscreen—from sketch to solution. Generally, the overall form remained intact while the details were refined into graphic lines and shapes. Four breasts from two women merge to become the three-nippled breast of one woman, a shoulder disappears; curves and squishy folds of the female body are reduced to loops and circles.

“Over the three years, the toes evolved into circles—these little digits. That became my stock visual solution for toes,” McGinnis said. He couldn’t explain why he chose certain abstractions over others. “To find the perfect forms is to find what I consider the truth in the drawing.”

McGinness strongly noted, however, that he is desexualizing the models through this process. He claimed that he wanted to neutralize anything considered “erotic” in this work. The process of unsexing a sexy, mildly raunchy pose is most pronounced in his diptych-like paintings with a sketch on one side and an abstract graphic on the other.

“So, the removal of the male gaze, was that intention here or was that just a product of the work?” the young Darmouth grad asked.

“It was a byproduct that I decided to recognize and exploit afterward,” McGinness replied. (When I asked the Dartmouth graduate if the answer was satisfying her reply was, “I just think it’s kinda funny that a whole brigade of women are looking at these sexualized female forms.”)

McGinness then pointed to a sketch of a woman on her back, legs splayed, and hands holding her legs behind her head.

“That’s a super-naughty pose, but then you wouldn’t necessarily recognize it,” he said, seemingly bragging about his control over the impact of the image.

Not everyone agreed.

“Well, the toes actually give it away. We can see what’s going on,” someone said. The ten circles for toes unlock the legs, and slowly a woman takes shape.

Someone in the crowd mentioned that some of the paintings were reminiscent of Picasso.

“Desmoisselles!," another eagerly chimed in.

McGinness politely deflected the reference, “But hopefully…better,” he playfully whispered, “And when I say better I mean more me.”