I want to begin this post not with Ryan McNamara, but with another Ryan in the art world–after all, there are more than enough of them. Specifically, I want to begin with Ryan Trecartin, who had his first major museum exhibition, “Any Ever,” last spring and summer at MoMA PS1. In her review of the show, chief New York Times critic Roberta Smith described Trecartin’s work as “game-changing.” For Smith and many other critics, his videos of bizarre characters engaged in disjointed conversations struck a chord by artfully bringing the aesthetic of contemporary internet culture into the realm of art without unabashedly replicating it (You can watch some online if you’re not familiar with Trecartin’s work). Ryan McNamara’s exhibition “Still” at Elizabeth Dee, his first solo gallery show, accomplishes a similar feat. Like Trecartin, McNamara reinvents the product of his medium to contend with a new digital era.
Both video art and performance art emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as potential antidotes to the object-based art of the prevailing decades, basing themselves in the less tangible practices of television and theater, respectively. In Trecartin’s case, the manic pace of his videos contradicts the traditionally plodding place of much video art, which particularly in its earliest years, attempted to test the limits of its viewers’ patience and attention. Even most contemporary video art, for all its embrace of new media and technology, still tends to encourage a kind of contemplative looking/watching that is increasingly at odds with the attention span one develops to deal with the web’s frenetic information flow, not to mention all the devices we now have to access it. In contrast to these works, Trecartin tests the limits of our inattention. Rather than attempt to counteract the Internet’s quick pace, he pushes our contemporary tendency to multitask to the extreme. The non-narrative sequences in his videos accumulate like so many browser tabs, linked by a strand of interest that, while temporally linear, lacks a distinct forward progression. Trecartin does not opine about the internet in his work, but he makes it clear that his characters are all active users. In doing so, he makes the chronic distraction that characterizes our technology-infused culture the subject of his work.
Similarly, Ryan McNamara challenges the prototypical features of performance art instead of replicating them. A quick (though of course, not complete) history of performance art might be seen as a history of narcissism, with artists from Bruce Nauman to Marina Abromovic elevating their simple, individual actions to the level of public interest. Their narcissism was poignant, at least at a time. But in a contemporary culture driven by self-absorption, in which every thought, feeling, and instantaneous inkling is deemed worthy of public –knowledge–, such practices don’t function as successfully. Most artists are doomed to the fate of a Kardashian or Kanye, with their public self-projections becoming either annoyingly self-indulgent—I might be thinking of some artists in the Whitney Biennial here—or spectacularized to the point of idolatry, as in the case of Abromovic. Mindful of these conditions in performance art and culture more generally, McNamara exploits them by transforming the narcissistic impulse embedded in performance art into a motor for collaboration. Moreover, he does so, ultimately, to produce objects of art, so long antithetical to the ethos of dematerialization at the heart of much performance.
Collaboration is the core of McNamara’s practice and of “Still” more specifically. The first three weeks of his exhibition saw Elizabeth Dee’s space turned into a photo studio, which the artist filled with a host of props, costumes, and set pieces. Upon entering the space, visitors had the opportunity to turn from mere spectators into models-cum-actors by having their photo taken in a bizarre situation or pose, spontaneously imagined by McNamara and his official collaborator, Sam. After selection and editing, the photos were posted on the gallery’s website, with the visitor and McNamara listed as equal collaborators on each work. It’s a premise that takes two narcissistic impulses, the artist as genius and the visitor as celebrity, and combines them to produce an image that, one the one hand, is appropriately outlandish for the amount of self-aggrandizement that went into it.
On the other hand, the images’ purposeful absurdity is also where these impulses start to break down. McNamara, certainly, sacrifices the spotlight in favor of his subjects, and in doing so, cedes some of his artistic control. His subjects, in turn, also cede some control, in their case the control of their self-image. In contrast to the profile pictures, avatars, and tagged photos that allow us to shape the public “version” of ourselves, McNamara’s photos are ridiculous as to be potentially embarrassing. By agreeing to be photographed, the subject risks putting herself out there, a risk that the web increasingly allows us to sidestep. Rather than the artist, as in early performance pieces, it is the viewer who is now encouraged to enter into a sometimes uncomfortable realm of exposure and vulnerability. McNamara is the one doing the encouraging, and he makes it easy: after all, the best word to describe the photographs, as well as the experience of being photographed, is “fun.” Full of geometric shapes, bright colors, and objects—hay, a packing tube, a day-old pizza—that often fall just on this side of garbage, the pictures are funny, in the sense of both odd and comical. As purported documents of scenarios that, in reality, never actually happened, the photos take the detached documentation that often comes with performance art and turn it on its head.
While many artists heavily favor the act of performance itself over any aspects of its afterlife, McNamara’s strength comes in his ability to transform his spontaneous performance into enduring objects without losing any of the spontaneity. Thus, the artistic vision which governs the photographs flows consistently from the photographs to the objects, all made throughout the course of the photo shoot and displayed in the gallery for the latter three weeks of the exhibition. Props and furniture, découpaged with photographs, fill the center of the gallery, and a number of similarly collaged backdrops hang on the walls. The objects are playful: small sculptures and decorative objects that poke fun at art’s claim to profound and eternal meaning. Covered in brightly colored cut-outs, the props convey McNamara’s prizing of process over product, a craft sensibility that opposes the modern predilection toward progress for progress’s sake.
Most successful are the large-scale wall hangings, which are backgrounds disguised as paintings—or maybe it’s the other way around. They started out as generic patterns of checkerboards, bricks, and stars, onto which McNamara applied variously sized and colored cut-outs from his archive of photographs. The results are reminiscent enough of both internet culture and contemporary art that they appear familiar even as they claim to be bizarre. Like Trecartin’s videos, their brightly-colored and fractured aesthetic references the Internet without depicting it. The works appear at times as homages to Web 1.0, when the web garishly flaunted its indeterminacy, rather than hiding it under sterilized, stream-lined interfaces. At the same time, as they oscillate between Willem de Kooning and Where’s Waldo?, the backgrounds are either entirely representation or none at all. They’re abstract art for a digital age, in which the digital photograph has supplanted physical paint as the representational medium in need of self-reflection.
Moreover, they deftly take up this challenge by proposing a model of art-making that values collaboration over isolation. McNamara makes the viewer a part of the work, figuratively and literally, by sharing with that viewer some of his authorship. As potential or actual subject, the viewer is attuned to the potential for creative action laying within our many opportunities for self-presentation. When returned to the role of spectator, she can bring this creative agency to bear on her viewing experience. As props and backgrounds rather than sculptures and paintings, McNamara’s works define the gallery as a space in which to act, even when the visible action appears to have passed. The artist’s means and materials are not rarified or even very innovative, but in fact, simple and accessible. Yet he demonstrates that such materials can be used to produce works that are remarkably sophisticated. Like Trecartin, McNamara is a young artist who is changing the game of contemporary art by mining the culture of his generation, rather than blindly living within it or critiquing it from the outside. For them, to make art that’s relevant in a digital era is not a zero-sum quest. Instead, art provides an arena not only for production, but also for inclusion, in which others might be motivated to do some mining of their own.
“Still” was open at Elizabeth Dee from February 25 to April 14, 2012. All images courtesy Elizabeth Dee and the artist unless otherwise noted.