HAIRY EYEBALL It's hard not to look at Ryan McGinley's road-trip photographs — in which his young, often nude, subjects, having ventured far from civilization, run through the woods, climb trees, dance amid a Vulcanic cascade of sparklers, and leap into the void — and not sigh a little. What now separates them from the images he shot for Levi's current "Go Forth" campaign, seemingly plastered on every other Muni shelter, is frequently a conspicuously displayed pair of jeans.
McGinley has built his reputation on capturing Edenic visions of youth running wild. His pictures are gauzy and nostalgic, shot through with the sexy frisson of their in-the-moment documentation of a way of living that rebukes authority and throws caution to the wind. No one is at work in a McGinley photograph (an irony, perhaps, given the faux-literati, "we are all workers" sloganeering that Levi's uses elsewhere in the campaign). Rather, people, such as the New York area taggers he started off photographing early in his career, create. Or, as in the road trip pictures, they drop out, escape.
No wonder Levi's came calling. McGinley's photographs deliver the promise of youth and all its freedoms in a sexy visual package. When McGinley is at his strongest, though, his pictures also offer up flashes of mystery and unaffected joy. Sometimes, when his subject's eyes lock with his camera they seem to transmit the promise of a secret to be shared.
The road-trip photographs make up roughly half the images in "Life Adjustment Center," McGinley's current exhibit at Ratio 3. However much they dazzle — Tom (Blue, Pink and Orange), a male nude study, gives George Platt Lynes a glowing Technicolor kiss — they are not the true draw. The animals are.
The other half of the show consists of black and white studio portraits of models (again, nude) posing with all sorts of fauna: deer, a domesticated mutt, a peacock, a butterfly, and a coyote. They are the inverse of the road-trip scenes: nature has been brought inside. Both creatures and humans address us with unblinking stillness that, at first glance, gives the impression that the former are stuffed. However, the press notes inform us that the animals are real, which makes a photo like India (Coyote) all the more riveting.
The coyote is draped around India's shoulders, her hands balancing it in place, in a pose that echoes classic depictions of Christ as shepherd holding aloft his allegorical lamb. The coyote — its tongue hanging out — appears at ease, as does India. Their proximity to each other is nonetheless unsettling (we are left to guess whether or not the scars that criss-cross India's torso and legs were acquired while posing or before the shoot).
The photograph also makes me think of Josef Beuys' famous 1974 performance in which he stayed in the René Block Gallery with a wild coyote for eight hours over three days. By the end of the piece, the coyote had become tolerant enough of Beuys to allow the artist to give it a farewell embrace.
In McGinley's remarkable photographs animals and humans pose together, but there is no hierarchy of prop and subject. In these double portraits McGinley has captured a momentary, and intensely tactile, experience of trust and vulnerability shared between unlike creatures.
OF COWBOYS AND CARNIES
I have one thing to say to fans of 2005's Brokeback Mountain and Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys (1968) who haven't yet seen local animation wunderkind and 2008 Goldie winner Samara Halperin's epic, stop-motion same-sex cowboy romance Tumbleweed Town (1999). Get thee to YouTube.
A brief plot synopsis is in order. As Todd the Tonka cowboy hitchhikes his way across the Texas desert he navigates a rugged world of plastic masculinity only to find true love in the arms of a two-stepper at a raunchy roadhouse.