• Steven Heller

Art Of Design Language

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When Ryan McGinness started showing his work in the late 1990s one critic, Carlo McCormick, believed his revival of arcane argot of non-self expression looked to be yet another invocation of Pop. “It was and was not,” he writes. The early explorations in the terse language of symbols and icons, McCormick says in “The Forest of Signs,” an essay in McGinness’s new book McGinness: #metadata (Damiani), “are remarkably just as articulate, spot on, funny and fresh today as they were at the time. . . . McGinness was storming the back rooms of capitalist coercion where the merchants of desire were divining the lexicon of identifiers by which everyone would come to read the corporate landscape.” He went beyond Pop into a post-Pop hyper criticism and has since continued laying it bare.

Ryan McGinness (b.1972, Virginia Beach) grew up in the surf and skate culture of his home. His paintings, prints, sculpture and installations are created in the manner of Pop Art and incorporate the graphic elements of public signage and corporate logos, as well as images from art history. The fusion of influences establishes his unique language as a multi-faceted reflection of contemporary visual culture.

McGinness received his BFA. at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, and worked as a curatorial assistant at the Andy Warhol Museum. He has had numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. His work is included in many public and private collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond, VA; and The Charles Saatchi Collection.

His new eponymous book includes paintings and installations that reveal his fluency with commercial language and their function in both informing and enlivening society. I asked him to talk a bit about the place his new work has in his overall blurring of the lines between art and design languages.

Internal Logic, 2017, acrylic on linen, 85 x 60 in.

Where is #metadata situated in relation to your work within the graphic design sphere?

The #metadata body of work was borne out of a frustration with seeing artwork reproduced without the metadata, or correct captioning—the information about the work that tells us what we’re looking at. Even the New York Times does not properly caption artwork. I think it is irresponsible to show a simulation of a thing without describing what that thing is. The simulation then becomes the thing, and that is dangerous, because it means we lose our sense of reality. Perhaps this is really my own fear of losing my own sense of reality and having it replaced by simulation. I’m a sensualist, and I love making things—things that confront our bodies in a shared space-time that can only be experienced IRL. I started making paintings that included the captioning of the work in a very self-referential way, but then I destroyed those paintings and started making paintings that looked like they were paintings of my paintings—where my paintings became symbolic paintings. The paintings within the paintings look as if they are reproductions or reference other paintings that exist in our real world, but in fact, they are primary productions—paintings made site-specifically within the larger picture planes (which are symbolic presentations of the studio with the studio floor, wall, and paint buckets). I like that the paintings within are simultaneously secondary and primary expressions. They are symbols with no referents.

Evidence, 2017, acrylic on linen, 84 x 60 in.

You were one of the pioneers (post–pop art) of design as art language. What was your impulse to merge the disciplines?

I think the key word is “disciplines,” because the disciplines are closely aligned, but the practices and industries are worlds apart. I am so thankful and fortunate that I went through a disciplined design curriculum at Carnegie Mellon University. I feel like I still do dot and line studies every day. And I have a very process-driven approach to making images. I can’t just sit down and make a beautiful drawing. I have to make numerous sketches that get developed in order to finally arrive at a solution. Even thinking of drawings as solutions comes out of a design discipline. The disciplines diverge when we look at who is defining the problems. My problems come from within (and I have lots of problems!) With “design as art language,” I assume you mean using a design aesthetic and a design process to create works of art. The process I touched upon (sketch development, for example), but the “design aesthetic” is a bit trickier. I think this where a significant contribution to art history can be made—in the aesthetic crossover from design to art. That is what I have been trying to do by using the visual language of universal signs and symbols in order to create my own original images. That process is a subversion of that authoritative visual language that has historically been dictated by the state or corporation.

Studio Floor, 2017, acrylic on linen, 84w x 60 in.

For me, the meta part is the references to the art and design worlds within your pictures. Am I imposing myself on your work?

Oh, the meta part is much simpler. I’m interested in the information about the work—everything from making paintings of paintings to fetishizing the tools for making the work, like the Squeegee Trophies and Screen Combines (paintings on used silkscreens).

But … you should impose yourself onto my work! That is what is exciting about art, and that’s exactly how we find meaning. Meaning is a projection onto work, not a broadcast from the work. As Duchamp claimed, the viewer completes the work by accepting it as art and attributing meaning. It is within this gap—between the artist’s intention and the viewer’s interpretation—where we find the poetry of art. And, it is this gap that differentiates art from design. Within the design industry, the burden of communication is placed squarely on the shoulders of the creator. If the work fails to communicate the intended meaning, it is the failure of the designer, not the viewer. The sender must accommodate, or design for, the receiver. There is an audience in mind. One of the alienating aspects of art is that the same burden is flipped onto the viewer. This is why a lot of people are frustrated when looking at art. The failure to “get it,” makes people dismiss a lot of art. An entire art marketing industry attempts to fill this communication gap. A meaning-machine has emerged to help sell the meaningless to the meaning-seekers. The only function of art is to be art. Art is most appreciated by those who know themselves well and can bring something to the work. Art wants to have a conversation, but if the viewer has nothing to say, art will have nothing to say. Art folds in on itself, and this is where I am now with my own work and the metadata series.

Script Kitties, 20216, acrylic on wood panel, 69.5 x 51.125 in.

The critical mass of your output is huge. I’m always in awe (or as your book notes, “aww”) by such obsessions. Why are you so obsessed with image, color and icon?

I grew up in a surf and skate culture where graphics added value to otherwise ordinary goods like t-shirts, surfboards, and skateboards. Art was the differentiator. Art defined what was cool. The act of going into a skate shop and looking at oil on wood panels is no different than going into a museum and looking at oil on wood panels. It’s an aesthetic experience, and I wanted to understand that experience. Why were some graphics cool and some corny? Why were some paintings good and some bad? I wanted to understand the underlying principles. I wanted to understand the power of cool graphics, and I wanted to assume that power for myself. I could not afford the cool brands, so I painted my own skateboards and made my own t-shirts. When those things were valued and desired by my friends, I felt empowered. I wanted to know more. I soon learned that the discipline was called graphic design, and that’s what I went off to study. Still today, my goal is simply to make the coolest paintings I can.

Making Someone Else’s Bed, 2015, acrylic on linen, 84 x 60 in.

Just to satisfy my own curiosity, what is the deep dark symbolism in the paint buckets that are conceits in many of these works? The secret is that the buckets are empty! In fact, they’re just symbols of paint buckets on the symbolic studio floor that are holding up my paintings that are really just symbols of my paintings. Resting paintings on paint buckets (or paint cans) is a standard procedure many artists employ in order to keep their work up off the floor. In my own studio, I actually use wood blocks, but wood blocks do not translate visually to communicate the gesture. I also like the idea that the the material in the buckets (paint) is used to support the painting.

The deadline for the Regional Design Awards has been extended, but only until April 30.

Your judges: Sagi Haviv, Rebeca Méndez, Nancy Skolos, Alexander Isley, Chad Michael, Gail Anderson and Justin Peters.

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