Book Review: "Mirror Mirror," by Ryan McGinley
by Matt Fink
Ryan McGinley’s book, a companion piece to his show “Mirror, Mirror,” is, plainly put, a collection of nude selfies taken by people in the comfort of their apartments, one which seems to comment - deliberately or accidentally - on the self-obsessed quality of our current cultural moment. But within a few paragraphs of its artist-authored introduction, a thorny question is conjured which lends the work a deeper dimension: in the process of art’s creation, where lieth the greatest glory - in its conceptualization or its realization? For while the visual arts (drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, et al) are generally-speaking less collaborative than, say, music or film, you only have to think of Michelangelo and his crack platoon of paint-spattered assistants binding paint to wet plaster in the Sistine Chapel in order to modify our collective vision of the lone artist, grappling sweatily with his muse.
In creating Mirror Mirror, McGinley - a 40-year-old artist whose work has been featured in the Guggenheim and Whitney Museums - relied not upon well-trained (and paid) lackeys, but rather a large cadre of friends, most facilely described by applying a fusty linguistic relic of the 20th Century: “bohemian.” Prior to the photo sessions, each of the artist’s game contributors were given detailed shooting instructions and 15 door-sized mirrors, both delivered by assistants in order to further distance the artist from his own creation.
Leading the reader into the book’s main photographic body is a word-for-word transcription, in plain Courier font, of said directions. The four-page passage seems to serve one main purpose: to assure the skeptical reader that in the realm of what he terms “instructional art” the artist’s imprimatur remains significant and essential; light on any one of the 191 photos found herein and you couldn’t be blamed for thinking the artist simply farmed out an art project wholesale to a group of compliant persons of the artist’s acquaintance. Seen through the lens of this exactingly detailed instruction manual, however, the pictures acquire a patina of deliberate, focused artistic intent.
And then…simply acres and acres of stark naked bodies bathed in warm, flattering light, ably representing New York’s gorgeous ethnic variety and attached to faces that stare out at the reader with the unnerving, steady-eyed calm of The Sphinx.
The carefully arranged mirrors, meanwhile, create multiple perspectives on the same subject, a la a dressing room mirror - a source of inspiration McGinley mentions in his introduction. It evokes the idea that, while we may think we have a strong bead on the figure we cut in the wide world, catching glimpses of ourselves from un-expected angles - be they in an oddly placed mirror or a photograph - warps the Polaroid of ourselves we keep in the mind’s gallery of life experience. But even as the dust settles after these identity-fracturing moments, something remains forever altered, like a fresh ring on a tree or the new skin of a snake. We witness in these moments, perhaps, the on-going, glacial evolution of exactly who we believe ourselves to be.
Philosophical preoccupations aside, there is a distinct voyeuristic pleasure in leafing through Mirror, Mirror’s catalogue of bold intimacy. These people, after all, are giving you a glimpse of their most private, unvarnished selves in the safety of their inner sanctums, the living rooms and insular boudoirs where we all most fully inhabit what we yearn to have the luxury of being, regardless of environment: comfortably, unapologetically ourselves.
To view more work by Ryan McGinley, click here.