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Aesthetic Comfort (Review)

Ryan McGinness illuminates contemporary culture and art history

By Laura James · November 12th, 2008 · Visual Art

Critic's Pick

Ryan McGinness’ exhibition of new paintings, Aesthetic Comfort, creates an optical second reality in the Vance-Waddell Gallery at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Lights are turned off; heavy, dark curtains hang in the doorway; black lights shine onto the wood panels and bring everything painted there to life. It’s a little disconcerting, looking into a painting and feeling as though you might trip into some Alice in Wonderland alternative universe. But these paintings are also inviting — they pull you into their layered development, tempting you to touch, to test, to feel what you’re seeing. In this sense, McGinness has created something entirely original here — a revamping of the Renaissance.

The paintings must be thick with paint, not that you can see it in the dark. On the contrary, the paintings look downright delicate. Graceful swirls morph into graphic symbols that morph into delirious colors. Some lines and images pop forward, others retreat. McGinness uses florescent paint to create a three-dimensional effect. The illusion is so believable that it’s hard to imagine anyone not itching to touch the panels.

McGinness uses his Virginia Beach “skate-punk past” here. The work is graphic and contemporary. The curls and lines call to mind graffiti, an obvious trigger, while his symbolic language comes from advertising and consumer culture and is far less obvious. His graphics will be familiar — monkeys, bodies, skulls, bended lines all find homes here — but sly.

The symbols are symbols, yes, but they are symbolic of nothing. It makes me want to hunker down with Guy Debord and discuss Situationism. Our culture, McGinness seems to say (and Debord would agree), is based upon symbols overlapping with symbols, again and again, so much so that we wind up losing the meaning of everything.

On the wall at the CAM, this phenomenon is called “the cacophony of communication.” We are all so connected to our Blackberries and computers and televisions, with all of their persistent sounds biting at us constantly, that we become lost among the clatter. We hear noise, but we are deaf to language. McGinness’ symbols without meanings echo that feeling of getting lost in our raucous, right-now culture. The black lights and florescent paint compound the feeling — fake upon fake upon fake upon fake.

What’s real in McGinness’ show is the jump he takes as an artist with his decision to use florescent paint. His psychedelic skateboard swirls and graphic icons aren’t new to art. The Punk aesthetic has been much hyped since Beautiful Losers and other “street art goes gallery” exhibitions worldwide. The Contemporary Arts Center built a yearlong revolving exhibition, Graphic Content, around the theme of iconography and modern lines. The New York City-based McGuinness was a highlight of both of those shows.

But the CAM show is different. McGinness has begun a new realism. Just like the invention of perspective, when Giorgio Vasari, the first known art historian, could tout an artist for creating a painting as seemingly real as a window, something so accurate to human vision that viewers can hardly be blamed for taking it as truth. Of course, in the centuries since perspective’s creation, artists have sought ways to shake free of those chains. They want new, they want flat, they want media and nothing more.

Artists have done practically everything and called it art — rightfully so, I say. But in our era, past the postmodern, so far into the society of the spectacle where meaning gets buried under the noise of daily life, it’s about time someone thought of this. We are amidst a new reality. This time, we aren’t tempted by Leonardo’s rocks or van Eyck’s rooms, we are tempted by the painted version of our own reality: the cacophony of communication.

So, while the experience of Ryan McGinness’ dark room of paintings is a beautiful thing to behold, aesthetically speaking, it is also a triumph of art history. Let it be a lesson.

RYAN MCGINNESS: AESTHETIC COMFORT is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Feb. 15, 2009. Get museum details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.



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