Talking Skateboarding, Instagram, and Glow-in-the-Dark Art with Ryan McGinness
By Gerhard Stochl
Ryan McGinness is one of the most prolific artists of his generation. For the past two decades, he has created paintings, sculptures, and site-specific environments at an unstoppable pace. His work has been included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as a number of other high-brow institutions. Despite his success, Ryan has always retained a DIY attitude, a result of growing up as part of the skateboard culture in his native Virginia Beach. He’s also remained super approachable and fun to talk to, so The Creators Project chatted him up.
The Creators Project: Let’s talk a little bit about your early influences. You came out of the skate culture back in the 80s and early 90s. Obviously skateboarding was in a different place then—after the glamour years and before it was established enough to be on TV. How did that affect your work and artistic approach?
Ryan McGinness: Yes, I grew up in Virginia Beach, K-12, and I left in 1990 after high school. So, I suppose I would say 70s and 80s. I was absolutely never any good at skateboarding, but what intrigued me the most was the artwork that defined that culture. I became interested in how different logos and graphics changed the perceived value of otherwise ordinary objects (such as t-shirts and skateboards). I painted skateboards and t-shirts for my friends, and these objects were valued. Art was used to define what was cool, and assuming that power was intoxicating. I wanted to learn more.
Additionally, I realized from an early age that the aesthetic experience of walking into a skate shop and looking at what are essentially oil on wood panels and making value judgments based on the graphics is the same aesthetic experience as walking into a museum and looking at oil on wood panels. It was all the same to me.
As far as the influence culturally, this was at a time just before skateboarding was co-opted by big business. I distinctly remember being at Trashmore [a famous skatepark in Virgina Beach] with my friends and having some random guys taking pictures of our shoes. They introduced themselves as being from Airwalk [a skateboard shoe company]. They gave us their business cards and a handful of stickers. It was a brief but powerful introduction to market research. I was the subject in a field study on skate shoes, and they attempted to use me and my friends as vehicles for their sticker buzz-drivers. I remember having a clear grasp on all these strategies and never looking at the world the same way again.
On a more positive note, I also remember being at Trashmore—before the ramps were built and they only had the concrete “snake run” and asphalt “thunder bowl.” This was just as wide plywood boards were starting to be used, and I only had a small wimpy Hobie fiberglass board with deteriorating strips of grip tape. I must have been 10 or 11-years old and apprehensively made my way to the top of the run to wait behind the intimidating big teenagers with their cool gear. They looked at my condition and allowed me to go before all of them while giving me words of encouragement. This small gesture resonated with me for years. It demonstrated the true nature of skateboarding at the time. While it was an individualistic pursuit, we were all in it together regardless of socio-economic background or even ability. All you had to do is show up. How (or rather more importantly, why) did skateboarding transition from being a lifestyle to a sport? The answer is because there is no money in camaraderie. There is money in competition. Creating haves and have-nots is profitable. Creating desire is profitable. You’re either a winner or a loser. There is money in war, not peace.
When you first came to New York, was there a plan on how to establish yourself as a working artist? How did the city differ from the New York of today?
I moved to Manhattan in 1994 upon graduating from Carnegie Mellon University. I loaded my paintings into a rental truck and I moved everything I owned into a small studio apartment with my girlfriend. I worked as a graphic designer to support myself while continuing to make paintings and share my work in group shows and by putting my work up in clubs and bars. I never had a master plan for establishing myself, but I have always wanted to share my work. The idea of “establishing myself” or of careering has never interested me, and I have always been suspicious of people who make that a priority. I have always preferred to concentrate on my work, and I indiscriminately seized opportunities to share my work. Had I been more concerned with building a career, I would have been more discerning in where I showed.
As far as NYC having changed over the past 21 years—well, the change certainly hasn't been as dramatic as since the 70s and 80s, and certainly not more dramatic than since before then. So, I don’t want to undermine the experiences of my seniors who lived through greater change. But, I came to NYC just as Rudy Giuliani came into office. The changes he brought about, for better or for worse, could provide enough fodder for another interview. Suffice to say, that the decline in crime and Disneyfication of the city was entertaining to witness.
When you look back at your early years now, was there a moment that you'd consider your big break? Or was it more a case of putting out work, making connections and continuing the grind?
I’m still in my early years! I’m what I like to call "emerging mid-career." Unfortunately, I have never had that romantic "big break" moment. By default, I’ve been the victim of the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach, except I haven’t won any races. I’ve always just concentrated on my work—making the best paintings I can.
Can you explain how your approach has evolved over the years? I'm especially interested in your early use of public-domain clip art and how you integrated these into your creative process?
While I was in high school, I worked on a military base in their art department making flyers, posters, newsletters, and other printed materials. I became fascinated by clip art. We had numerous books of these line art drawings that were public domain and could be used for anything and everything. While at work, I used these images to enhance the meaning of the messages. Outside of work, I had begun to use these same images for my band flyers and cassette covers in order to undermine the messages. This dichotomy between using the same images sincerely versus sarcastically or ironically fascinated me. While at CMU I continued to use these kinds of images in my work in an attempt to deconstruct the meanings of the drawings themselves. I was sincerely presenting these images in a fine art context to demonstrate the inherent sexist and sexual overtones in their narratives and to exploit the difference in the context of their use (from low to high). Finally, I was interested in attributing authorship to these otherwise anonymously made drawings. This particular interest has continued to this day in my use of the anonymous authoritative visual vocabulary employed in sign systems often used to direct and suppress. Individual authorship (as opposed to collective or corporate) is increasingly important today as it demonstrates that art is an expression of the human spirit with accountability.
On that note, you have been pretty prolific in publishing volumes that chronicle projects and/or chapters in your career. Is the main purpose to keep a record of what you have done or is it also a way for you to look at past work through the lens of the here and now and shape your future path as an artist?
Yes, books serve both those purposes for me. I grew up making books, and my thesis at CMU was "What Is a Book?" Books help me organize my thoughts, organize my work, and serve as forms of expression. I make a range of books—from mass-market monographs and catalogs to limited edition artist books.
Can you describe the thinking/approach behind your 1999 book flatnessisgod which, in many ways, helped introduce your work and approach to the world?
Flatnessisgodhad a whisper impact on a lot of people in both the art and design communities. It became popular in Japan and influenced [Takashi] Murakami’s Superflat, which he published in 2001. He called me when I was on the cover of Bijutsu Techo [an influential Japanese art magazine] and asked where he could buy my work. Coincidentally, I was on my way to Tokyo for an exhibition. We met, he bought some paintings, and I went on his radio show. This influence cannot be overstated. Additionally, flatnessisgod was appreciated by a lot of students here in the US, and as a result, I gave a series of lectures at different universities for a few years. But for me the book (like all my books) was a document of my past and thoughts about how to build a picture plane, which also resided in the past. As much as I love making books, that is the problematic nature of that medium. They always present the past. That is also true of paintings. How can one present ideas and concepts in real-time? And that’s the beauty of skateboarding. At its best, it is a real-time presentation of improvised poetry. At its worst, it is a rehearsed routine begging to be judged.
I am interested in how you approach your work with brands. Can you take the Hennessy bottle as an example? Is the thought process of how and what you make for a bottle the same as for the rest of your work? How much do different methods of production (or reproduction) factor into the equation?
When Hennessy approached me about creating a limited-edition bottle, I asked myself the same question I ask with every corporate co-brand opportunity: Is this a good match? I’m on the drink often, so working with an alcohol company is a natural extension of my identity. In the case of Uniqlo, I grew up making t-shirts, and I still make my own, so that project also made sense. And, in the case of Supreme, I grew up painting skateboards, so that also was a good match. As far as the thought process and approach goes, these projects usually center around addressing a product. Objects of utility should advance that utility first and foremost, so that is the primary concern. This is what differentiates products from art. The second concern is how to artfully address the form given the production constraints. In doing so, I believe that the best solutions are ones in which work is created specifically for the form and fully exploits the production methods. That is to say, simply wrapping the form in a reproduction of an artwork does not work. This is where most “artist products” fail.
With the Hennessy bottle, I drew a Black Hole that was site-specific to the format of the label. It was produced in five fluorescent inks, plus black, silver, and an invisible black-light-reactive ink. Creating an eight-color artwork that was designed specifically for the label format and manufacturing process gave the bottle a material and production integrity that transcends the ordinary approach of mere art reproduction.
Speaking of methods of distribution, your presence on Instagram, daily dispatches of stark white text over black circles with messages like “Nothing More Than What Is Needed” or “We Are All Just Information,” is a fascinating take on that medium. And how do you decide what to share when?
[Marshall] McLuhan taught us that the first use of new media is to use it to reproduce the forms of old media. Ninety-nine percent of Instagram accounts are used to make reproductions of a world that already exists instead of making work specific to Instagram. I am using Instagram as a distribution vehicle for making site-specific work. Furthermore, each of my posts is an ingredient that will be used in a larger piece that will be revealed in a couple of months. It has taken me three years so far. All the grams are pre-made and pre-loaded. Posting is completely randomized in content and timing.
Finally, I know you recently became a dad for the second time. How has fatherhood affected your work (and workflow)?
The creation of offspring is the total fulfillment of one’s humanity. That fulfillment comes at a high cost that often seems greater than the return. The bulk of that cost is time, and that has had the biggest impact on my workflow. I simply do not have as much time to work as I once had. So, I’ve had to be even more selective about what projects I take on and whom I let into the studio. And as far as affecting the work, well, I am working on a mother and child series.