JOSEPH SILVESTRO GALLERY | MAY 5 - JUNE 3, 2001
At Joseph Silvestro—the most ambitious new gallery in Williamsburg—Ryan McGinness has mounted the space’s debut solo show, a collection of work that includes a wide range of media from wall drawings and paintings to videos and skateboard decks, and in a sense also the T-shirts for sale at the front table. The deadpan irreverence of the shirt slogans has a quick humor, similar to that of the earlier illustrations in which McGinness juxtaposed Dick-and-Jane type imagery with captions that made fun of the art world and its stars. Many of the works in the show are boxy wall pieces with one or a few graphic icons. These works are porcelain enamel baked onto steel, with a few inches bent around to provide a deep edge that seems intended to suggest the heft of a sturdy canvas bar, to move the images from their realm of flat street signs a bit closer to the format of painting. Also included are paintings whose images look a bit more hand-rendered but turn out to be printed on the canvas.
Plenty of artists—Warhol being the most obvious example—have used varying techniques of flatness to contest the plastic space of painting. And Warhol’s screen-printed paintings added the threat of a commercial process, with commercial inks and a commercial mark. Like a stagnant political movement, painting has survived by bringing more of its so-called enemies into the party, be they photography, text, decoration, or commercial art. The vocabulary of graphic design commands more visual space and memory than does that of painting, due of course to its fundamental role in our pervasive commercial world. Graphic signage has long been the vernacular language of our culture, accessible by definition, and therefore an exploitable route into the collective consciousness. At their best, McGinness’s graphic forms slip between defined meanings and abstract conventions.
But most of the time, neither McGinness’s iconography nor iconology achieves, to my mind, any great level of invention or profundity. On a strictly formal level, those works that attempt to engage with the history, vocabulary, or space of painting do so in only a very basic way. (His flat-out aping of Do-Ho Suh in one of his bizarre pieces featuring toy soldiers must have been done by mistake.) I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of this style of show, in which “lower” art forms attempt to lay siege to the more “high” art forms (art with a capital “A”). As he has done before, McGinness seems to take up the mantle of graphic design’s relevance within an Art context: hanging it as well as painting its rigid, hard contours onto the gallery’s white wall.
The problem, however, is that painting has tended to expand from the inside out rather than the other way around. Painting that uses graphic methods and signage—versus graphic design that alludes to painting—seems to work better (at least on gallery walls), probably because graphic design is too easily seductive and that quick resolution ends up cutting works short before they develop the level of visual complexity one associates with a successful painting.
Critics point out that McGinness manages to do commercial work for big companies but as an artist somehow escapes being tainted for it. The premise behind this—that somehow a graphic designer wouldn’t be bale to make good art when he is not at work—is ridiculous. I know quite a few artists who have jobs as graphic designers, and they are certainly not up at night worrying that they might be discovered. But their artwork does not bear such a close relationship with their jobwork. It is as if McGinness is less interested in challenging aspects of painting than in trying to prove that graphic design, which is clearly a major part of his life, is also worthy of some of the different (“higher”?) value attributed to art shown in galleries. In this show, the schism between Art and commercial art reads more as a personal quibble than as the politically, economically, and culturally fraught debate it has historically commanded. His anti-Art T-shirt slogans make sense in this light. In the end, the show ironically keeps graphic art bound to its “low” stereotypes by so obviously buying into them in the first place.
By contrast, the skateboard decks lined up on the wall look great, perhaps because they aren’t trying to be much else. Along with the T-shirts at the front table are some earlier fake Museum of Modern Art postcards of the artist’s work, which he slipped into the racks at the museum in a prankish conceptual ploy. Also there are his books, which are engaging works of art, full of surprises. These are his best works, and are nothing to be ashamed of.