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Ryan McGinness, Spawn of Warhol, Brings His Naked Ambition to L.A.

Warhol worshipper and bumper-sticker philosopher Ryan McGinness shows off his sketchbooks at Giant Robot.
Warhol worshipper and bumper-sticker philosopher Ryan McGinness shows off his sketchbooks at Giant Robot.
Victoria Ellison

You can't say Ryan McGinness doesn't play his cards right. At his packed May 27 lecture at Giant Robot, where he projected and explained images from his forthcoming book Sketchbook Selections: 2001-2011 with winning whimsy and a standup comic's sense of timing, he said he had turned down chances to exhibit in Los Angeles for years, so he could bide his time for just the right moment.

That moment is now. Instead of doing some one-off show nobody would notice, like he says he has done in other, lesser cities ("Those sucker cities," one audience member said, making McGinness smile and nod and repeat, "Sucker cities!"), he has planned carefully, gotten everybody in the often uncooperative art world to cooperate at once, and arranged to make a splash like a cannonball, or rather eight cannonballs.

Besides the Giant Robot lecture, he's got a Michael Kohn Gallery show of his paintings, works on paper at Country Club LA, an update of his corporate-logo show "Sponsorship" at Subliminal Projects, murals based on his new, bawdy body of work "Women" at the Standard Hotel (both Hollywood and downtown), a sculpture show at Prism that turns the "Women" into gold-plated trophies, and "Women: The Blacklight Paintings" at the Standard Hollywood's Purple Lounge, where his new fluorescent, glow-in-blacklight nudie cards were presented at Saturday's launch party with bodypainted topless dancers on hand. His new "Women" series features diverse yet related female imagery in murals, paintings, cards, and drawings.

All the cool art kids will likely be at McGinness' live figure drawing at the Hollywood Standard, which finishes tonight from 9 p.m. to midnight. Nobody there will be more naked than McGinness' ambition.

One of the dancers at the nudie card launch party got totally wasted, said one of McGinness' associates afterward, laughing. They had to sort of watch her. "Yeah, I think she was nervous," said another.

McGinness doesn't seem nervous at all, but he has a lot of nerve and vitality, and people definitely respond to his showmanship. He knows how to throw an art party (or eight). But what's more important is his strong graphic sensibility, and his drive is impressive.

McGinness window installation at Michael Kohn Gallery: Drive-by art with a dazzling graphic sensibility and a jokey, sassy attitude
McGinness window installation at Michael Kohn Gallery: Drive-by art with a dazzling graphic sensibility and a jokey, sassy attitude
Victoria Ellison

He works fanatically, he produces produces produces, he's so busy pushing this bad-boy persona, which is working for him. He said at the slideshow, a very privileged glimpse into his artistic process, that he likes to think of his work as a Trojan horse: he layers image thick on top of image, so that you can't get into them, make sense of them. It all looks pretty on the surface -- and only then does he want you to see it's a couple of guys fucking a skull. Or (more sinister to him), an upside-down silhouette of creepy execs at a business meeting plotting some kind of evil. The skullfuckers are actually pretty festive, and McGinness is cheerfully macho. He says he draws butterflies weighed down by giant testicles because he wants to make "something beautiful, poetic and bold, but also masculine."

McGinness at Michael Kohn Gallery: Paintings with a plastic-like quality and imagery you might describe as a "glitzkrieg"
McGinness at Michael Kohn Gallery: Paintings with a plastic-like quality and imagery you might describe as a "glitzkrieg"
Victoria Ellison

The problem is, his hidden messages can seem simplistic. As they say in Spinal Tap, it's such a fine line between stupid and clever. But McGinniss doesn't seem to care: "I think we're living in an age of bumper sticker philosophy," he said at Giant Robot. He's certainly got a gift for bumper sticker quips, and the clever slogan buttons he creates by the dozen, but they often make for one-liner art.

And as he admitted, he can overdo the layering, with imagery so dense you can't get into the painting, his visual music lapsing into noise, like a radio caught between stations. The layers keep repelling you back to the flatness of picture surface. This may well be his intent, with such a graphic sensibility.

McGinness paintings at Michael Kohn Gallery: Layer upon layer of bright, writhing surfaces -- but hey, anything worth doing is worth overdoing
McGinness paintings at Michael Kohn Gallery: Layer upon layer of bright, writhing surfaces -- but hey, anything worth doing is worth overdoing
Victoria Ellison

Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing him get past the tangible and mechanical, and into a more disorienting or deeper, varying sense of space. He does score at times, but he shoots way more often. He's not just prolific, he's profligate. He could use more intentionality, focus in the work. More music, less noise.

"I'm a S'il Vous Playa," acrylic on wood panel, 48" square: McGinness at his best, less noisy, more visually musical
"I'm a S'il Vous Playa," acrylic on wood panel, 48" square: McGinness at his best, less noisy, more visually musical
Victoria Ellison

His prints at Country Club LA make more use of translucent ink and imagery; you can look through one image to another. Where the paintings have more stacking and compression of images, the prints can breathe. He said he's not a colorist, but his instinctual choice of color in the prints at Country Club is nuanced, not the canned color of the Michael Kohn Gallery paintings' dayglo psychedelia.

"French Kiss" screen prints at Country Club: Nuanced color without clutter, and beautiful images that breathe
"French Kiss" screen prints at Country Club: Nuanced color without clutter, and beautiful images that breathe
Victoria Ellison

The cyanotypes are particularly strong, emphasizing his acute sense of design and negative space. I loved the way he was pulling all these images with a pop metaphysical quality from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts collection, symmetrical images that look totemic or like Thangka paintings (brilliantly colored, highly patterned, symmetrical Buddhist devotional art), decorative ironwork on armor, gryphons, or really beautiful formal design elements from the historical archives.

They have a spark, a life to them, with their simple blue on white, crisp and blurring photographic edges that are quite lovely. I would love to own one. And still they had humor and wit to match his skullfuckers and the big-balled mariposas in his sketchbook slideshow lecture, yet also they transcend their materials in a way that the sculptures do not.

The thing is, I'm not sure he wants to transcend anything. He seems to be happy right where he is, luxuriously wallowing in the shallows of materialist culture, a jaunty pirate on a tiny sea of pop culture cheese. He'd have to be meaner and weirder and deeper to really be like his model, Warhol, but he doesn't seem to want that kind of transcendence either. He just wants to draw, constantly. Warhol, who ordered Lou Reed to write a song every day, would approve.

What McGinness most wants now is to spend the weekend seriously frolicking with nude models in a vitrine at the Standard on the Sunset Strip, then partying in the glow of the pool and his better-than-ever fame. I'll be there. You're invited too.

McGinness' "Trophies" show at Prism: Nude sketches transformed into abstract wall patterns and gold-surfaced sculptures
McGinness' "Trophies" show at Prism: Nude sketches transformed into abstract wall patterns and gold-surfaced sculptures
Victoria Ellison

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