Recently I spoke with Ryan McGinness about his current exhibition, Studio Visit, on display at the VMFA through October 14. During our interview, I found him to be pleasant, but I also sensed the spirit of a trickster. He knew something I didn’t, and he was letting me in on the joke. This duplicity can be found in his work, the foundation of which is a simplified visual language made up of symbols such as those found on everyday street signage. These symbols carry a message to the audience, and when he combines these symbols on a canvas–as he does in Art History Is Not Linear (VMFA), the painting that acts as the centerpiece for his current exhibition–the message becomes complicated, with hundreds of truths there to be discovered. Each symbol has an individual meaning, and when put together as a whole, they tell a bigger story. This is McGinness’s story, which he is filtering through his art. His career has seen him play several roles–the curiosity, the artist, the jokester, and the anti-establishment insurgent working within the establishment. He is a Cheshire Cat playing within the fine art world–no wonder he found this conversation amusing.
You’ve taken over an entire section of the VMFA, it’s pretty wild.
Yeah, it turned out really well. To the museum’s credit, I didn’t have much to do with the exhibition proper, besides helping them pull it together from afar. It blew me away. I knew it was gonna be good, I just didn’t know it was gonna be so on point and a testament to the curator, John Ravenal, to the museum at large, and the exhibition designers. The resolution of these photo murals is so tight, I had no idea. The layout is very comfortable. I think the exhibition explains the process in a very clear and precise way. I don’t have that kind of objective view of my own process, so I wouldn’t be able to put together an exhibition like this. [laughs]
You’re originally from Virginia Beach; what was it like growing up there?
At the time it was a big skate and surf culture, so I grew up going to the beach. It’s a very leisurely town, which is great for a lifestyle to grow up in, but I also left [laughs]. Growing up in Virginia Beach was comfortable. It’s not like I grew up in the mean streets, you know? It’s very comfortable, very nurturing. I grew up in a household that was all about making things by ourselves. From a very young age, I made all my toys with my mother, made shirts and painted skateboards. I grew up in a very creative environment.
In your presentation yesterday you mentioned Bones Brigade and all those early skateboard graphics. I was wondering, specifically, did you have a favorite board?
I was blown away by the progression in the Rob Roskopp graphics, published by Santa Cruz. It astounded me you could tell a story or a narrative over a product line that was released progressively. The Rob Roskopp board was a target with a little monster creature that actually grew, and a whole creature came out in the end. I think that was my favorite. Not even aesthetically–there were cooler looking boards–but conceptually that always stuck with me.
You got out of Carnegie-Mellon and went to work at Pentagram, a design company. When did you switch over to focus on fine arts?
I was already drawing, and I studied art since I was young. I also had a parallel major, which was painting, and a parallel pursuit after school when I moved to New York, so I was always painting and showing in group shows and whatever. But it wasn’t really until 2000-2001 where the aesthetic curiosities and pursuits and investigations I was making in design crossed over and started finding their ways into paintings. At that point the work became truly honest, and unique.
Was that nerve-wracking, to make the leap from a steady job to fine art, or was that a natural progression?
Yeah, that was a natural, boring, organic, slow progression. From having to do commercial work to stay alive, to sustainability as an artist–there’s not really a story there, it’s just a natural kind of progression. That’s one of the unfortunate aspects being an artist. Unlike being a musician or in a pop group, where you have that one hit that climbs up the charts and is kind of a breakthrough moment, building a sustainable career as an artist is slow and treacherous and boring, not very exciting.
You did have a breakout show in, what was it? 2004 or 2003?
I guess people say that, but while in the moment, it doesn’t feel that way. I’m always on to the next show, and I’m always just working in the studio. So while other people may look to moments in a career or exhibition history, I never have. I think people might be inclined to because they’re looking at a career from their own perspective. So it might be the moment that someone saw the work for the first time, whereas I’ve been seeing it all along [laughs].
You work in digital and painting; do you feel like being able to screenprint allows your work to bridge into fine art? I remember discussions with other artists back in 02-03 where they said being able to screenprint enables a digital work to be in galleries. Does it matter anymore?
It doesn’t matter. I think there are plenty of artists that have been working in the digital realm for years; for instance, Barbara Kruger has made outfits of her compositions. And that’s where the artistic decisions are made–in the materialism of the works. She’s one example of an artist that’s been doing it since the technology’s been in place, in the 80’s. If anything, silk-screening and using paint is an antiquated medium as a means of producing work.
But that makes it unique, doesn’t it?
Yeah, I think so, and certainly there was a time where it was radical. It’s not radical now – I think a radical gesture now would be to make something using the latest technology. At that time it was kind of a breakthrough production, but now there’s a whole new set of tools that new artists are giving other artists permission to use. I’d be careful to not let issues of material dictate whether something’s art or not. It doesn’t matter.
People have used the phrase “Warholian” to describe your work. I can see some parallels in you and Warhol, in that you both using screenprinting, and in how much you produce. The first time you read that in a review of your stuff, what did you think?
I’ve been certainly aware of and a fan of Warhol since I was a teenager. And the fact that he went to Carnegie [Institute Of Technology] was one of the reasons I was drawn toward Carnegie-Mellon. I also interned at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. But there are many aspects of Warhol and what he was doing that I am against. He definitely cultivated a caricature that was “too cool for school”–off-putting and insincere in a lot of ways. The way he’d answer or not answer interview questions. It has its place as an artistic statement in and of itself, but that’s not me. I think people deserve genuine answers and genuine insight, and I don’t wear sunglasses inside. There’s that whole kind of mystique that is cultivated and prevalent in the art world and it, in a way, creates and increases the perceived value of the work. That’s not something that interests me. I’m not interested in smoke and mirrors. That’s why I’m so revealing and willing to share the process, and to let people see me working in the studio. There’s nothing magical going on, and I don’t think there should be in any artist’s practice. There’s a lot of that kind of bullshit that happens in the art world, and people kind of play into [it]. But I think there’s a larger group of people who are smarter than that and are more critically-minded, and can handle the truth.
Which I guess would be a good lead into your books. You touched on being open on your process, and being open with your thinking. Was it important to have the books as a complement to your art?
I grew up making books, and I love making books. It’s a medium and a format that feels good to me. I also have the skills from my design training, background and education, to make books. The artist exploits their skills to the best of their ability, and that happens to be where my skills are.
I wanted to ask you about Sponsorship: The Fine Art Of Corporate Sponsorship/the Corporate Sponsorship Of Fine Art and its focus on the relationship between fine art and corporate money. What did you pull from this project and why did you want to do it?
The Sponsorship project came about after being invited by Shepard Fairey to show in his project in Los Angeles 11 years ago. I wanted to take that opportunity to explore this idea of sponsorship and fine art, and to address this phenomenon of artists working with corporations. I had become very critical of exhibitions that were overly sponsored. For example, I saw a lot invitations to exhibitions where there were creative logos at the bottom. It almost came to the point where that was something valued, not seen as a detractor. These were badges of pride. Even for younger artists who were curious about creating exhibitions, the first thing that came to their minds was, “Who are we gonna get to sponsor it?” And it was just fucking ridiculous, so I wanted to do something that was even more ridiculous. I had an exhibition called Sponsorship, and the idea was that there was no actual artwork on display. It was all logos of our sponsors, sized on the wall according to their level of contribution. So you had large logos, small logos, corporations could straight-up contribute money, or they could contribute product that would meet a certain dollar value. We had piles of swag to give away.
And the corporate sponsors were fine with that? Was it a joke or something?
I had everything outlined very carefully, and a very competent staff at the gallery pulled this whole thing together. And yeah, it was a case of anyone rolling their eyes. We were very transparent in our intentions, and there were enough companies that kind of got it. Big companies–Scion, Levi’s–and small, local companies too. That was the premise of the exhibition, and the publication was an extension of that. In the publication, I interviewed a lot of my friends and peers about some of the issues that we were addressing and specifically about their feelings about artists working with corporations and what that means.
Were you surprised by the answers you got from different artists?
I didn’t experience any surprise. My role was kind of more of a journalist, so I was just trying to document it.
You mentioned Dalek, Kaws, Futura in the book. Does street art play a role in your art at all? Are you inspired by it? Are you interested in it?
I’m friends with a lot of so-called street artists and artists who were so-called street artists.
Why do you say “so-called”? Because they’re in galleries now?
I say “so-called” because I don’t think those artists would call themselves “street artists.” I think they’d call themselves artists. You know, people who wrote graffiti… I think we share some aesthetic sensibilities. My work is not necessarily inspired by graffiti directly, but by street and public signage and icon systems; symbol systems and visual language. I think a lot of graffiti artists are striving to make work that is seen quickly, so they’re making work that needs to communicate efficiently and quickly–the same way I was striving to achieve those qualities in my work.
You have a tremendous catalog of work. What do you do in your downtime?
It’s all downtime, or it’s all up-time. There isn’t much of a difference between work and home. Granted, they are two different spaces, but it wasn’t always the case. The studio I’m in now is a space my wife and I moved into and renovated in ’97. Eventually the studio pushed us out, [but] there was a time where it was literally the same space. But the boundaries are blurry. I work at home. I’m always learning and making, and now that we have a little girl, there’s no real separation. She’s always in [the studio]. I draw with her and play with her, so it’s all the same. Having a holistic place like that is satisfying.
Did you ever imagine yourself being in museums and huge galleries? Going back maybe 15 years, was that a goal?
Forget 15, let’s go back 30 years. I can remember coming to the VMFA from Virginia Beach and fantasizing about having an exhibition. Like, “Oh, if I had a show here, I’d have a painting here, and we could do this..” And so it was always a fantasy. If you grow up being a musician or playing in a band, you probably imagine playing in a stadium, or playing Carnegie Hall. If you’re acting you have fantasies of playing on Broadway, or in a movie. So it kind of goes with the territory of being an artist. That’s one of the more frustrating things about a path in the arts–there’s no clear prescription for navigating a career, like there might be in the scientific or medical community. It makes it very difficult and fraught with anxiety. People are always asking, “How is that done?” I don’t know. It’s unique for every person.
Do you have a timeline? When you read about artists, there’s the beginning career, mid-career and late career. You’re in your mid-career now. Do you feel like you have another 10-15 years for really prolific work, then slow down?
I’m 42, so if I said 20 more years, [that] would put me at 62, which is still relatively young for an artist. So let’s [say] 25 more very fruitful years [laughs]. But there’s no exit strategy, no end game. The work will always evolve and change and morph. So I just need to figure out a path that will accommodate that, in very real, pragmatic, logistical terms.
So you do think of your career as an arc?
Yeah. Of course. I’ve always had five year plans. And this goes back to your question earlier about being young and fantasizing about having a show in a museum–I fantasize about doing large, public sculptures that I haven’t been able to do yet. I would love to do that. How do I get there, how do I do that? Well, I’m trying to figure that out. I’ll need more space to do some the projects that I want to do. I need to connect with the right people to make some of those things happen. Those concerns are always present.
Maybe not having enough time.
Yeah, how do you manage time? How do you build a life that accommodates the studio practice, and my family, and if I wanna life in different places around the world, how do I do that? How do I keep things going? It’s all very considered and with an eye toward the future, and like I said, there’s always a five-year plan. But that’s my nature anyway, and a lot of people aren’t like that. I’m not suggesting one should, that’s just kind of who I am. I make very calculated moves. I do things for very considered reasons. I’m always testing out and failing in the studio. I’m always researching. The studio’s kind of a research environment. And everything I do is thought out.
You can tell that by your work. It doesn’t look like there are any accidents. Everything’s so clean and crisp, but then there’s a message layered on top.
And yeah, that’s again an extension of who I am by nature. I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing. But also, it is something I am always striving to hone. I’m trying to be more me, if that makes any sense, and always get at what makes me unique, and what is my message, my core contribution. What makes me and my work unique, and how do I share that with other people? How is that reflected in the work? And what does that mean to make work that reflects all those things? I’m still figuring all that out. I’ll be figuring that out for the rest of my life, and I’ll get closer and closer to the core of who I am.
Everyone has that essential question on their mind, at their core.
Who am I? And beyond that, why am I? And those answers are what I mean by the truth. When I was talking about using drawings as a process to find the truth, I really mean that in a more metaphysical way. It’s really the process that reveals the truth. A surreal drawing of a person with a fish wrapped around them [is] not the truth, but it’s the fact that I [drew] that. Somewhere in there, I find meaning.
For more information on Ryan McGinness’s exhibition at the VMFA, go to vmfa.museum/exhibitions/ryan-mcginness-studio-visit