Ryan McGinness

Photography by VMFA & Duncan Wolfe

April 30 2015

Ryan McGinness is a New York-based visual artist whose large scale paintings draw heavy influence from the surf and skate culture of his hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Known for his intricately layered pieces, McGinness weaves together the visual language of contemporary iconography, corporate logos, and public signage, creating abstract pieces that have established him as one of the most popular artists of his generation.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA first teamed up with McGinness for their official reopening in May of 2010, commissioning the artist to create a monumental and site-specific installation piece. Entitled Art History Is Not Linear (VMFA), and inspired by pieces from the museum’s archives, McGinness’ work is on permanent display in the museum. Now, four years later, McGinness returns to the VMFA for Ryan McGinness: Studio Visit, an exhibit that presents a unique view of the creative process behind this massive commissioned work. Partnering with the VMFA, we stepped inside his studio to talk to the artist about the evolution of his work. The following is a transcript of that discussion.

Where are we right now?

We’re on the sixth floor of an old factory building. This is where I work and where I’ve been working for 15 years after having been in New York for 20. This year marks the 20th anniversary of having moved to New York. I make paintings and sculptures and also like to make books, and skateboards, and soccer balls, t-shirts, like a whole bunch of different things.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Virginia Beach, VA.

How did that culture influence your work?

From an early age, I began to recognize that a strategy that a lot of skateboard and surfing companies used to differentiate their goods from other companies was to increase the perceived value through imagery and through artwork.

So, for example, walking into a skateboard store and looking at, basically, the different oil on wood panels is no different an aesthetic experience than walking into a gallery or walking into a museum and making a value judgment based on the imagery and based on aesthetics.

I could never afford the cool brands or the expensive brands, so I would make my own shirts or paint my own skateboards. And then when those things that I made became valued by my peers, it’s then I understood that assuming this power of creating the imagery for myself was intoxicating and just understanding the power of the imagery and the power of the brands from an early age is something that kind of stuck with me, I guess.

So I’ve always made my own things. I’m making the work for myself, primarily. I never let anything out of the studio that I don’t want for myself. And it’s really hard for me to let work go because if I didn’t have to sell work, I wouldn’t. I like what I make, I want to keep it for myself.

How did you decide this is what you wanted to do?

There’s no real proper art world in Virginia Beach. It was in the middle of high school when I recognized what I loved doing, but I didn’t know what it was called. I knew that I liked working with images, knew that I liked working with typography. I didn’t have a vocabulary for those activities. And I said, “This is what I love doing. This is who I am.” And that’s what I…it kind of clicked, “This is what I want to pursue.”

I went and studied graphic design at Carnegie Mellon. I also studied art there. I was pursuing both. I wanted to study design as opposed to art because I appreciated the discipline behind it. This whole journey clicked when I was in school and recognized all those differences between art and design.

You speak of discipline and the difference between art and design. Can you elaborate on that?

What I began to recognize when I was in school looking at the differences between an art pursuit and a design pursuit was that design seemed to be a more disciplined approach to understanding how to construct a picture plane and how to communicate visually. There was a strong emphasis in the program on communication and on the burden of communication being on the creator and not on the viewer. I was always curious why that was flipped in art. That’s something that I’ve always abhorred in art, that the burden of understanding and the burden of extracting meaning is usually on the viewer. If the viewer doesn’t get it, it’s his fault, not the artist’s fault. I never agreed with that.

I always appreciated that there was a discipline to studying design. There wasn’t much of a discipline to studying art. It was a little more free form. There doesn’t seem to be an underlying structure to understanding and learning how pictures work and how images work. That’s what’s missing in most art education programs. I don’t know why that’s taught in design and not taught in art, just very fundamental core principles.

There are a lot of terribly flawed definitions of art floating around that people try to hold as true. For example, “Art is what you can get away with.” I think it is attributed to Warhol. I don’t necessary believe that.

When did you first sell a piece of your artwork?

I sold my first painting when I was in sixth grade. I sold it for $40. An art teacher bought it. I do remember that. I remember that very distinctly.

You’ve come a long way since then. Where are you now?

Before this space, I actually had just a closet studio over on Broadway and Prince. I was pursuing a career in design and pursuing a career in painting at the same time. Both pursuits were in parallel. It really wasn’t until 1999 or 2000 in which those two pursuits merged.

I have a very process-driven approach to making the work now because it comes from, simply, how I learned how to draw and how I learned how to make things which comes from a design education. I can’t sit down and simply make a beautiful drawing in one take. The sketches represent a series of failings and a progression toward a perfect drawing.

The practice now is largely premised on that kind of approach, working in progressive stages and making multiple variations on something and then choosing a solution as opposed to, again, sitting down and making one masterpiece or one beautiful drawing. It’s very labor intensive. It’s not very magical.

What is your studio like?

The studio is really a research and developmental lab. It’s a place for failing. I’m not learning unless I’m failing. I’m always experimenting with new materials, new ways to do what I already know how to do. I’m always looking to fail in new ways in order to learn.

How do you learn from your failings? And what are you afraid of?

I’m always looking for things that don’t work. Rather, because I’m always experimenting, I’m always finding things that don’t work and just trying to build from those failings, finding how I can fail again and how I can learn from those failings. I’m afraid of not learning anymore. It’s a fear that can be controlled because I’m always finding new ways to learn, new ways to experiment, new materials to try out. Fears aren’t controlled. You just learn how to live with fears. I’m stimulated by learning. If I’m not learning, I’m not stimulated. If I’m not stimulated, then I’m not living. If I’m not living, then I’m dead. At the core of the pursuit is a fear of death.

Is there an end goal to all your work?

In the most basic sense, the goal is sustainability, just being able to continue. The main goal is to be able to continue to set the smaller goals. I guess that’s the main goal.

Walk us through your process.

I like that Gustave Flaubert quote, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

I’m trying to create, or trying to maintain, structure and order in the practice and in the studio and in the process so that I can be chaotic in the work and in the paintings.

I can definitely see how the paintings look very chaotic. I guess, indeed, they are. There is an underlying structure to how they’re built. While there’s a lot of planning that goes on in the studio and in the practice and in the actual construction of the individual drawings, the paintings aren’t planned out. The paintings are built very intuitively. They are a result of a reactionary process whereby one mark is made and then I react to that mark and then react to those and then react again.

They grow. The paintings grow over a period of time. Some grow very quickly. Some take a long time to grow. Sometimes, paintings are set aside. That’s what’s going on. That’s what you see in the studio, some paintings are set aside and I’ll go back to them later. I feel that the process of creating a painting should inform that painting. In sharing the process, I like to substantiate my findings and prove the truths that I’ve found for myself. People who don’t do that aren’t being honest.

I’ve been sharing the sketches in the process. It’s important to prove your solution in the same way that if you’re solving an equation. Then you show all of the iterations and all the steps that were taken to get to that solution, to get to that final answer. Without showing that process, then you can’t put a lot of faith in the final solution. You prove the truth or you reveal the process behind the truth. Ultimately, that’s what we’re searching for. That’s what we’re trying to find in making art, is the truth.

How does your exhibit at the VMFA relate to your process?

The exhibition at the VMFA shows a lot of that process. That was always the idea. It was called, Studio Visit. The idea is that you hopefully get a little bit of a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes.

What are you currently working on?

We’re working on the second Art History Is Not Linear project which is with another museum. It’s the same concept as with the VMFA where we’re looking at the permanent collection at the Boijman’s Museum in Rotterdam and selecting 200 objects from their permanent collection, making a series of drawings and then one final drawing per object and then collaging those final drawings together in painting.

What is next for you?

I am trying to make a real concerted effort to get a handle on what I’ve made so far. Very specifically, I’m going back and cataloguing all of the individual elements that I’ve made. By that I mean all the individual units or ingredients or drawings. This is going to take a couple of years. I’m trying to collect them all and build a periodic table of elements to understand where I’ve been and to create a system that will take me into the next phase of my career. Once I have this system in place, then I can build upon it in a very thoughtful way that is very controlled and, in its rigid system, allows for me to go out on all different kinds of directions. I’m at a point now where I’m assessing where I’ve been, analyzing, creating a structure that will take me to what’s next.

See more of Ryan’s work at ryanmcginness.com

Special thanks to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts vmfa.museum