The youngest artist ever to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art — back in 2003, at the age of 26 — Ryan McGinley is one of the shining stars of his generation. An intuitive photographer, McGinley has been capturing the spirit of his age on film for more than a decade. For his first solo show in London, Moonmilk at Alison Jacques Gallery, the artist has assembled an amazing body of work with a singular, sensational theme: nude, young people shot in striking, cavernous realms across America.
McGinley built his reputation photographing New York’s downtown, bohemian art scene in the late ’90s and early ’00s. He made his first splash with a self-published book of photographs of friends, The Kids Are Alright, which he sent to editors, gallerists, and artists he admired. Frolicking nude youths have always been a part of his nature scenes, while sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll — caught in a joyful, spirited way, rather than a dark, decadent light — have occupied his urban images.
With a background in graphic design, McGinley brings a unique vision to photography. His sense of framing is uncanny. Subjects always seem to be wrapped in their environments. The figures in the caves are sometimes as hard to spot as Waldo in the Where’s Waldo books. Equally, McGinley’s uses of light and color are extraordinary. He handles these aesthetic tools like a filmmaker constructing an imaginary realm where his actors become one with the scene. Under McGinley’s direction, the underground caves, which have rested in darkness for ages, come to life as fairy-tale settings for feral youth.
A young man glows under a waterfall, gazes at his reflection in a pool, and falls from a great height. Meanwhile, a youthful woman dreams at the base of a prehistoric stalagmite and bridges a gap between ancient rocks with her body. The aura of the caves helps the artist construct symbolic narratives of epic proportions. Although the subject’s poses are not meant to be erotic, the colors and forms that surround them are supremely sensual.
Staying clear of the tourist attractions, McGinley and his troupe focused on wild caverns, where investigation was often hazardous and temperatures sometimes freezing. The resulting, highly controlled exposures are nothing less than magical in their display of theatrical lighting, seductive color, compelling nature, and human innocence.
Moonmilk, which is accompanied by a Morel monograph, is on view at London’s Alison Jacques Gallery through October 8.