In 1980s America the art scene fawned over the infamous “Brat Pack” group of writers that included Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Donna Tartt and Tama Janowitz. They portrayed American (privileged) youth in that decade like it was — with all their nitty gritty drug taking, vodka swilling and New York club excess. In the mid to late ’90s a new crew emerged: not writers per se, but photographers and artists, such as the late Dash Snow and photographer Ryan McGinley. Handed the mantle by filmmakers such as Larry Clark and Gus Van Sant, they set about documenting — and kill me for saying this — “the cultural zeitgeist” of that time.
McGinley, a New Jersey native and the youngest child of eight, set the art scene alight in 1999 with his handmade photo-book from his first public show, “The Kids Are Alright,” a brilliant portrayal of his own set of friends in New York at that particular time. He quickly emerged as the voice of a generation and worked on high-profile projects for several fashion brands and other commercial outfits. His work, which documented the likes of Snow and Dan Colen, was provocative and daring, and according to the men’s lifestyle magazine GQ, McGinley became “the most important photographer in America.”
McGinley’s creativity progressed and amid other work, he shot a series of Morrissey concerts in the mid-noughties. The resulting photographs, however, pale in comparison to other live-music photographers such as Kevin Cummings or even lauded fashion designer Hedi Slimane, who documented up-and-coming bands such as These New Puritans and The Drums. McGinley later shifted from working with film photography to digital.
The current exhibition, “Ryan McGinley: Body Loud!” at Tokyo Opera City Gallery, is a set piece of mainly nude portraits of McGinley’s very hip friends, including some Japan-based subjects such as actress and model Rila Fukushima and blogger and photographer Cailin Hill Araki. The exhibition kicks off with portraits of a naive looking and tattooed Snow and a drug-addled, graffitied Dan Colen. Both images are striking and provoke the audience with their unabashed honesty.
The “Yearbook” series, a wall of nude portraits, is so tedious, however, it’s questionable why it’s included in the show. The scale is immense but the result is insipid.
Photo critic and publisher Ivan Vartanian produced an overwrought essay on “Yearbook” for McGinley’s website, where he writes, ” ‘Yearbook’ is a word that may not be familiar to a Japanese audience. Upon graduating high school, each student receives a hardcover book that includes head shots of all the graduating classmates. It’s funny to think that instead of debate club photos or rows and columns of head shots annotated with pithy sayings underneath, Ryan’s YEARBOOK is a more authentic portrayal of that time in one’s life. And in this context, Ryan would be the nameless yearbook photographer just doing his job as systematically as possible. The accumulation of images and the sheer volume of work represents the state of mind that the photographer has maintained for many years with this ongoing, open-ended project.”
The problem, however, is that the average school yearbook album is arguably much more artistically appealing and representative of a period in time than the American photographer’s “Yearbook.” It’s undecided if McGinley’s shots of airbrushed and perfect youngsters with their genitals on show are more “authentic” than a yearbook documenting the universal student experience.
“Body Loud!,” barring a few exceptional shots such as “Mellow Meadow” from 2012, an evocative image of fleeting youth on farmland, is a series of superficial and purposeless images. It provokes little or nothing from the viewer. In fact, the exhibition currently showing on the second floor of Tokyo Opera City Gallery, “Into the Flowers,” is much more provocative and captivating. Takeshi Tanaka’s 2015 painting “Rumors” and the work of Yukiko Tomita (strangely reminiscent of British artist Alison Watt’s “Phantom” project) is sensational and, in turn, simply embarrasses McGinley’s exhibition.
“Body Loud!,” then, becomes as superficial as the soundtrack to a Sofia Coppola film or a novel by Tao Lin. McGinley’s work, if he is to be compared to the American greats, has to be examined side by side with other portraiture artists such as Diane Arbus. She became famous last century for her intimate and powerful shots of America’s “freaks and geeks.”
Susan Sontag, in her seminal book “On Photography” wrote: “The photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences or find new ways to look at familiar subjects — to fight against boredom. For boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to another. ‘The Chinese have a theory that you pass through boredom into fascination,’ Arbus noted.”
McGinley, manages in “Body Loud!” to invert this, in a vapid show, by producing the effect of leading the viewer through fascination and into, ultimately, boredom.
“Ryan McGinley: Body Loud!” at Tokyo Opera City Gallery runs until July 10; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri., Sat. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.operacity.jp/ag