A conversation with the New York-based painter and sculptor.
Question: How did your childhood influence your art?
Ryan McGinness: Well because Virginia Beach primarily this skate and surf culture, it’s a lot of the things that surrounds the people there are valued according to the brands, I guess.
And so from a very early age I was noticing how branding and logos and images on objects created or rather increase the proceed values of those objects and so certainly while I grew up at the beach and skateboarding, I was never really good at any of those activities but what I guess was good at, to some extent, was kind of emulating those graphics and logos because I couldn’t afford the cool brand so I would make my own shirts and paint on my own skateboards and those objects in turn, almost ironically, became valued by other people. I started to understand how that worked and I wanted to assume that power and that’s what kind of leads me to my interest in graphic design.
And so from Virginia Beach, I was in Virginia Beach from kindergarten to 12th grade. I went to study graphic design at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.
Question: What did your parents do?
Ryan McGinness: My father was primarily computer systems analyst and was also a stockbroker for awhile and my mother did a variety of odd jobs and she also made a lot of things that she sold, kind of crafts we had a garage full of jigsaws and sanding belts and tools, woodworking tools and so I was always in an environment of making things and creating things and furthermore making things for herself. So a lot of my toys growing up were homemade toys, cars made out of chunks of wood with milk carton lids for wheels and things like that, yeah.
Question: Do you distinguish between painting, sculpting and environments?
Ryan McGinness: No, I guess I don’t. I used to do more kind of instillation, sight specific work whereby I would go into a museum or a gallery or an environment, a space, a blank space and I wanted to create my own world in which to locate the paintings and the sculptures.
And I think I always wanted to do that as a way of owning the space but recently the paintings have gotten larger because I wanted all of the energy and all of the blood and tears that I have been putting into the walls which are essentially temporary to kind of go into the canvasses so that canvasses have become their own environments by shifting scales, yeah.
Question: What is the central artistic message?
Ryan McGinness: Well, actually I don’t appropriate logos and symbols but you could say that I appropriate the aesthetic and so I go through a sketch process to develop each individual drawing and so if you look at a painting and extracted one symbol, there is a development process that goes into developing and creating just that one… that one drawing.
And so like I said earlier when I was growing up in Virginia Beach, I realized that… realized the power of icons and logos and symbols and how they could transform otherwise ordinary objects by increasing their perceived value and so I really want to assume that power for myself and so instead of simply appropriating logos or icons that are anonymously created by corporations to stand for and symbolize any number of goods and services. I really want to take that, again, that kind of power and use it to communicate my own thought, ideas, or concepts and do so with an authorship that is accountable and responsible for that image.
And so it’s a subversion in a kind of way, it’s a subversion of an aesthetic and again whereby I’m using that, those forms which is essentially how I learned to draw by going through a design program, I learned how to create logos and icons and all of the requirements that those entail, for instance, they have to be read quickly, there’s a… all the images are kind of distilled down to their essential forms and there’s a wide range of scales, shifts and details within one drawing because each little icon has to be reproduced a number of different sizes so it really has to draw up at different requirements that go into making these kind of drawings.
And again, I want to kind of see the power for myself to communicate my own hopeful more poetic ideas than just whatever you will see in our environment and iconic symbols and symbolizing something in a very kind of blunt and pedestrian way because that’s the goal. So hopefully when you look at a lot of my drawings that again, are kind of embedded in the paintings, you do a double take and they communicate more than they seemed to at first.
Question: Is corporate branding obtrusive?
Ryan McGinness: Maybe I’ve kind of become numb to it and I think it was a hotter topic maybe 5 or 10 years ago and the fact that it’s not so much but it’s very telling and almost scary.
I believe in a kind of fight fire with fire approach so again, that is the world that we experience in our daily lives and as a reaction, I want to create my own world that I want to share with other people almost as an alternative to these other worlds, so you know if you can immerse yourself in my world with through all the different things that I make, hopefully, it could be more rewarding and in the end, I’m not trying to sell you anything just share some ideas.
Question: Are you anti-corporate?
Ryan McGinness: Well, I have a corporation. I have Ryan McGinness Studios Incorporated and I’ve other small businesses maybe since highschool. I think I started my first corporation. So I’m not necessarily against corporations, I more accurately I think what I would be against. It’s people’s relationships to corporations and in corporation’s relationships to people even to the extent that whereby corporations have a lot of ways have more rights than individuals and I think it’s scary when a society is set up to give corporations more rights than it gives rights to individuals.
So corporations, in it of themselves, I’m not against. They’re kind of necessary legal entities too and can do great and wonderful things for humanity but I think it’s how people react to corporations and how corporations react to people on a very kind of human level, that’s something to be worried about I guess.
Question: How do you make a painting?
Ryan McGinness: All my work starts with drawing and that is really the root and the core of what I make and the root and core of my entire study practice. In fact, not even drawing, I would say sketching and how I differentiate the 2 is I go through a sketch process, I’m always sketching in my notebook and developing these symbols and these drawings by trying to find an underlying geometry.
So for instance; the source or the ideas or the concepts behind these sketches are from a whole range from something I dreamt to something I heard in a song to something I read and I want to capture it in a symbol and so I’m always sketching, the sketch process involves trying to find this underlying geometry, I get the symbol to the point where I’ve figured it out, they’re like visual puzzles and I’ve solved the puzzle.
And then I’ll take the sketch, I’ll scan it, I use it as a template, I don’t convert it but I use it just as a guide to redraw in the computer with vectors, redraw the symbol so that it is perfect and so that all the points are parallel, all the lines are parallel, all points are tangent and so I’m searching for one final solution, I’m searching for the truth by going through this sketch and by going through the drawing process.
Once I’ve found that solution, once I’ve found and developed and finalized that drawing, it exists as a digital file and with… and a scalable digital file because that’s a vector drawing and what that really means for me is that it can be reproduced and replicated in any number of ways. One way is by having these drawings cut out of different materials like acrylic or aluminum or stainless steel and using those parts to make sculptures and environments.
Another way is to make shirts, for instance, I like making shirts and skateboards, more product oriented things. Another way; and this is how I make the paintings is to make pieces of film from the files and then I use the films to develop screens and then I use the screens to make the paintings.
So the next step is to work with a set vocabulary drawings in the form of these screens and then I’ll collage together and mash up all of these different drawings, symbols and icons, into the paintings through silk screen process whereby I’m screening, paint onto canvass. At that point, I’m concerned primarily with the formal aspects of constructing a picture plane which are shape, form, color, composition, I’m not using these individual drawings to create a narrative, each one, in it of themselves, represents something and symbolize something but [IB] suppose altogether, next to one another in the paintings, they turn the paintings into a kind of Rorschach test of sorts and this whole process parallels and is the reflection of sorts of the way we exist in the world and we all these different kind of ideas jumbling around in our mind and we’re trying to make sense of this chaos and that’s essential what free association or dreams are.
So when we’re dreaming all of these, all of the input, all these different symbols basically come together and so in a way the paintings are kind of a dreamscape or mindscape, it’s hard to extract the meaning from them taken as a whole just like life.
Question: What did you learn from design school?
Ryan McGinness: The Carnegie Mellon Design Program, I assume it’s still is today but when I was there, it’s very rigorous and disciplined program and it was very exciting for me because it was so rigorous and it was unlike the Art Program which is a little more free form.
I learned and took away how to communicate visually, I learned about very concrete formal aspects of what it takes to build a picture plane, how to use color, shape, form, composition, typography. And what I’ve done with those skill sets and those tools is employ those for myself as opposed to employ for, or on behalf of a corporation, or an advertisemen,t or a packaging or something like that, which is what most people do with what they come up with a Design Program with but I wasn’t interested in that.
Question: Do you recommend formal training for every aspiring artist?
Ryan McGinness: Oh absolutely because I think young people are interested in art or might be interested in anything… they’re hungry for something real and concrete to hold onto and use as a foundation and you get that in the Design Program. I don’t know if you really get that in a Painting Program without the program running the risk of being like a trade school of sorts.
So I would absolutely recommend it for anyone who’s interested in learning how to communicate visually and that’s really what art is, it’s visual communication and what I also took away from the Design Program is the sense of responsibility as a creator for communicating so if someone looks at one of my paintings and doesn’t walk away with something or get something or if the painting fails to communicate, then it’s my fault and I think… one of the reasons why I make art is essentially because I don’t like art, I don’t like a lot of art and one of the things that I don’t like about it is; it’s alienating, it’s off putting, it makes people dumb, it makes people feel like the burden of understanding it is on them if you don’t get it then it’s your fault and I’m interested in flipping that around and placing the burden of communication on the creator and that’s something that I took away from the Design Program at Carnegie Mellon.
If if what you create fails to communicate, it’s your fault or you can kind of need to retool and rethink what you’re doing, yeah.
Question: How should your art make us feel?
Ryan McGinness: Well, hopefully the work operates on a number of different levels. Figuratively and literally, the… literally though the paintings are constructed to operate unlike fractal patterns so you can see the paintings and take something away at different distances and as you go in, hopefully, they almost simulate the psychedelic experience of going in and being rewarded for that and so you look at the details up close. And there’s something there to impart information and there’s something being communicated very up close and far away.
And then more figuratively, I hope that the work can communicate on different levels in that I’m trying to make beautiful things, I think beauty is the answer but I also want to use beauty and aesthetics as a Trojan horse of sorts and so once you get past the fact that it’s a pretty painting and you look at the individual iconic drawings, they reveal something in a lot of cases more sinister or not so pretty and that’s maybe that subversive element that you’re talking about earlier to use not only the aesthetic of cool unanimous iconic forms to communicate something more personal and hopefully poetic but also use the form of art and beauty aesthetic in a subversive way.
And I’m not sure how successful the work is in doing that but a lot of times people will say that I really like that painting or this other painting or show or installation or sculpture and it’s beautiful and it’s lush and all that but I’m curious if they saw the specific images which a lot of times aren’t so pretty.
Question: Should people leave relaxed on unsettled?
Ryan McGinness: Oh, I don’t know about that. I guess hopefully if I had to choose hopefully unsettled but maybe unsettled with a greater sense of inner peace, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m prepared to impose in a kind of standard on what; once you walked away from a show with that, I don’t know.
Question: How much of your sexuality is in your art?
Ryan McGinness: A lot of it not unlike a lot of everything personally in my work, now what does it actually look like in the work? There are a lot of people fucking each other in a lot of paintings, there are penises that turns into skulls that are attacking their hosts so there’s something there I guess so a lot of it I guess, yeah.
Question: How deliberate is it?
Ryan McGinness: Sure, deliberately allowing the subconscious to come through, you know? And it really comes back to that initial sketch process where I’m just drawing, a lot of times kind of just free form and seeing what kind of comes out and it’s deliberately allowed to come out, I guess, yeah. Deliberately allowed or deliberately allowing the subconscious to come through the drawings.
Question: How did you market yourself in the early days?
Ryan McGinness: It’s almost a situation as kind of like actor or act of subversion where I went into the MoMA Bookstore and also the Whitney Bookstore and I’ve always been interested in reproductions and reproductions of reproductions. Because that’s how most of us experience artworks, our art experience is through reproduction, more so now on the screen but also through postcards and catalogs and books and so I wanted to share my work through the medium of reproduction with, or in the context of other artworks so I reproduced the postcards for MoMA and for Whitney exactly got the typography exact and the croppings and proportions and the sizes and the card stock, the weight of the paper matched it all exactly and made my own postcards of my own work and reinserted those into their bookstores so that I could share my work through reproduction.
Question: Do you use social networking to promote your art?
Ryan McGinness: No in fact even like towards the end of the ‘90s when I moved to New York in 1994 and was in painting and in group shows, sharing the work with friends and towards the end of the ‘90s, I decided, I’m not going to have like an e-mail list anymore, I’m not going to send out kind of a self-promotion announcement, everytime we have a show, we’d do a project and invite people to something because it looked corny to me and it looked just kind of silly and I’m also very careful about making anybody I know or even strangers feel obliged to attend something and I stopped doing that and I just have since just relied on galleries and institutions I worked with for them to do their advertising and promotion.
I’ve never joined any social networking sites, I’ve never accepted any invitations. I’m just not something that I’m interested in. Maybe because I’m a born contrarian of sorts and anything that’s popular, I don’t want to do and if… and if everyone’s doing it then count me out so maybe that’s the reason why but also I just don’t have time for that. I want to concentrate on my work, that’s the hardest thing for me is just to be able to work. It’s all I want to do, it’s just work
Question: Do you foresee the end of the gallery system?
Ryan McGinness: Well, not for me I certainly liked working with galleries and I liked working with really good dealers and I liked working with institutions and I’ve come to value what they offer which is primarily management whether it’s the management of an individual sale or management of collectors and buyers and institutions, I’m trying more and more to get to a place where I’m just concentrating on my work and I have no problem working with dealers or galleries who earn their percentage and primarily, for the most part, 50%, usually 50-50 cut and I’ve no problem with that at all if it’s earned and in most cases, it is.
Yeah, because it allows me to do what I need to be doing, I do my part and work with a gallery and so they do their part I don’t really have time to entertain clients or collectors or get involved in sales but I guess the solution could be I have an internal sales person or staff or something like that but it just doesn’t interest me, it’s not something I need to be part of my studio practice and not being motivated by money helps me stir clear of that financial incentive to sell your own work, it just doesn’t interest me.
Question: Are you a disciple of Warhol?
Ryan McGinness: I’m interested in taking what Warhol was doing with reproductions of reproductions further so what that means for me is using silk screen not unlike Warhol but using a set number of original variables, all my original drawings, not reproductions of found photographs that somebody else took for instance and creating unique experiences, not repeating the same experience so you don’t have 50 car crashes which was a breakthrough and significant contribution but that’s not what I’m doing, I’m creating 50 unique experiences with a set of original unique variables and imaging of course is different, I’m not using photographic imaging and using this kind of iconic universal symbol imagery as well.
Question: What inspires you?
Ryan McGinness: Gosh, if I answer this like completely honestly it’s just going to be like some corny shit it’s going to be. I’m sincerely interested in how the mind works and in these kinds of universal timeless curiosities that man have always had essentially.
Why are we here, what are we doing, what’s this all about? Really kind of depressing curiosities that for me have been answered through exploring psychedelics; and you can decide if you want to edit all this out or whatever but I grow my own mushrooms and developed relationships with a lot of different plants, in order to find some kind of insight and answers to those curiosities about why we’re here and what’s this all about and I don’t do drugs recreationally at all and I don’t just trip out and enjoy the world here, what I do is go into my own mind as deeply as possible to find answers and then come back and I know what to do.
And I know that sounds incredibly corny but that’s the answer and that’s why for instance, I’m trying to create work that reflects that psychedelic experience through kind of the factual based construction of the picture plain and one of the things I’ve learned is to create my own world and share that with as many people as possible understand what makes me unique and then share that and inspire others so maybe the answer is; the desire to inspire others inspires me.
Question: Do mushrooms change your aesthetic?
Ryan McGinness: Yeah the aesthetics are almost kind of a superficial reflection of the experience or experiences. They are, to some degree, that aesthetic Trojan horse the kind of psychedelic colors and compositions, I think are beautiful but that’s not the real message, that’s not real content, that’s just the form, that’s just the beauty that brings you in, I think, yeah.
Question: What is the best advice you ever received?
Ryan McGinness: This sounds like a cop out but maybe it’s the fact that I never really received a lot of advice, for instance, my parents never stirred me in any one direction and always allowed me to choose my own path and then gave me; I wanted to say my parents gave me permission because they instilled in me that I didn’t even need permission from anybody and again, they never really pushed me to do any one thing.
As difficult as that was for parents who have kids who are artists they want some kind of stability for your kids I guess, so there’s always some anxiety I think. But the fact that they never really pushed me or even really kind of gave me advice maybe I don’t know, in some ways, that’s the best advice to not give advice? I don’t know, that’s really the answer.
Question: Do you advocate artistic freedom for everyone?
Ryan McGinness: I think a lot of young people in any field are seeking that permission whether it’s from a gallery and invitation to do a show, permission to be just making your work because you need to make it and then figure out how to share it with it and that means putting on your own show or whatever, it’s… yeah, you just don’t need permission from anybody to do anything you want. And actually, I think really understanding that for me was a bit of a breakthrough.
At the end of the ‘90s, I moved to New York, again, I moved to New York in 1994 and I just come out of this design program and I had to make money of course so I did a lot of things in the music industry, posters and fliers and music packaging and singles and 12 inches and greatly covered cover design and also a lot of logos and icons. While I was still making paintings and I was pursuing both in parallel and I would have, of course, friends and people to the studio who would see all of these things that I’ve been making and respond very positively to the more kind of design work or design oriented work which for me was always kind for other people is a way I could just make money so that I could make paintings but my painting pursuit was based on my desire to make art and make things that look like art.
And so the breakthrough for me came when I realized that I should just try to make art and just make what I wanted to make regardless of how it would be received or perceived and so I started to paint the icons I was drawing and furthermore, draw icons for myself not for anybody and draw icons that would reflect and communicate things I wanted to share and sentiments that I wanted to share in concepts that I wanted to communicate and to use that aesthetic that has traditionally been in the context of graphic design made by anonymous people on behalf of corporations, to incorporate that into a fine art context and aesthetic and material and to realize that’s okay even if nobody has even done it before and they’ve never seen it, to realize that I didn’t need permission, that was the breakthrough for me.
Recorded on: April 30, 2009