Ryan McGinley, “Dash (Manhattan Bridge)” (2000), C-print, 40 x 60 in (collection of Bart and Bryanna Spaulding; all works by Ryan McGinley, courtesy the artist and Team Gallery, New York and Los Angeles, and © Ryan McGinley, unless noted)

DENVER, Colo. — In 2003, Ryan McGinley, at 26 years old, exhibited 20 large colored prints at the Whitney Museum as part of his “First Exposure” series. Holland Carter reviewed the show for the New York Times, calling it “relaxed and playful, as if the world were on recess.” Today, The Kids Were Alright at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver is more than a reboot of that show. Over 1,700 pictures are displayed, including 1,500 Polaroids never previously exhibited. The show unpacks the beginnings of McGinley’s visual language and the artist’s ability to capture the uniquely youthful experience of understanding the world through the body.

The photographs McGinley produced between 1998 and 2003 blur the space between spontaneous and choreographed. In some images, the subjects stare at the camera directly while bleeding or rolling a joint. In others, backs are turned while the subject marks a brick wall with graffiti, unconcerned or unaware of the shutter’s clicks. This shifting perspective yields an improvised nature. In “Sace (Canal Ledge)” (2001), the camera is positioned directly above cult NYC artist Dash Snow, who is smoking on a wall ledge. Only Snow’s youthful wavy hair, black clothing, and bright red and white sneakers are identifiable. A parking sign and a few spray-paint cans are blurred behind a tangerine-tinted fog that bleeds into the image from the top of the frame’s edge. The effect conjures the sensation of a memory rather than a documentation of an evening. This outcome was involuntary. McGinley worked with a Yashica T4, a 35mm compact camera with auto-exposure, which disallowed artistic manipulation. However, reading this early work as free-spirited in both process and content would neglect the discipline McGinley established only a few years after picking up a camera.

Ryan McGinley, “SACE (Canal Ledge)” (2001), C-print, 40 x 60 in (collection of Michael and Michelle Fries)

In 1999, the artist started documenting every visitor to his apartment: family, friends, himself, as well as others he met when out at night. He produced more than 10,000 Polaroids in less than five years, each labeled with the name of his subject and the date. In nearly every photo, the subject is set against a stark white wall. Even when the shots were taken on the roof of his apartment building or out at a bar, McGinley brought a large white screen to “stage” them. This controlled context enables each subject’s personality to become more pronounced: people pose, flex, or barely endure the photo request. These Polaroids wrap the second floor of the MCA Denver, accompanying the visitor from one gallery space to the next. The consistency of the single figure photographed from the waist up with the same background also allows McGinley’s inner circle to be easily identified, given their reoccurring presence in the series.

Ryan McGinley, “Dan (Bloody Eye)” (2002), C-print, 45 x 30 in

Curator Nora Burnett Abrams resisted calling the Polaroids portraits or studies, instead yielding to McGinley’s description of them as documentary. They also serve as a visual journal of the artist’s lexicon. In the early Polaroids, most of the subjects are men, whereas the singular sex in McGinley’s more recent work is expressed with androgynous subjects. For example images like “Redwood” (2015), “Peepers” (2015) and “Roller Coley” (2007) present nude subjects with an indiscernible gender. Ivan Vartanian describes this choice in his essay “This Charming Man” as “dealing with sexuality in this manner separates it from sexual identity.” Isolating people in a sparse context is something McGinley continues in his “Yearbook” series (2013). Even when city lights are the backdrop to bodies dangling from buildings, it could be any city. The anonymous environment encourages us to read only the body, not a narrative broader than the subjects.

In “Puke” (2002), McGinley’s own face wrenches in anguish: eyes shut tight, brow furrowed, veins bunched around his nose, chin pushed back, creating a narrow pillow of skin around his neck. His pink heart-shaped lips frame the thick glistening ribbons of amber vomit waterfalling from his mouth. The “Puke” series is abject but also compositionally beautiful. The grotesque body is ever-present in McGinley’s early work, but whether it be an image of Dan Colen’s black eye (“Dan,” 2002), McGinley’s bloody mouth (“Sucker Punch,” 2001), or an intimately unflattering sexual image (“Facial,” 1999), these are images of youth. In Mikhail Bakhtin’s classic Renaissance text Rabelais and His World, he states that the grotesque body “is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created and builds and creates another body. More-over, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world.” Copulation, drinking, puking, pissing — these are acts performed by and confined to the body as well as the world in which it is situated.

Ryan McGinley, “Having Sex (Polaroids)” (1999), C-print, 30 x 40 in

The Kids Were Alright, installation view (photo by Kelly Shroads Photography)

It is this phenomenological approach that uniquely situates McGinley in an art-historical tradition of imaging youth. Knowledge of the world can only be accessed through the body, and the body shapes experiences. Since one cannot get an outside perspective on one’s own body, it instead becomes the vehicle through which perspective comes into being. A key feature here is the way McGinley collapses the space between artist and subject in order to self-scrutinize. If his newer work is an accurate indication, McGinley will never again turn the camera on himself as much as he does in this series of photographs. This cheerful self-awareness reduces the sexuality of his images, allowing them to be read as honest or even banal, not salacious or voyeuristic. The artist’s intimate images are framed in self-discovery, free from shame or labels.

In the 2003 New York Times article “Liked the Show, Loved the Afterparty,” Carl Swanson observed, “Mr. McGinley’s images of wan drug-using friends provide access to a certain world that the Range Rover crowd might find titillating.” Who wouldn’t find the possibilities and uncertainty of youth captivating? Before social and political risk is possible, the uninhibited youthful body understands that the only risks are physical.

The Kids Were Alright, installation view (photo by Kelly Shroads Photography)

Ryan McGinley, “Ryan (5:54am) February 15, 2002,” Polaroid

The Kids Were Alright continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (1485 Delgany Street, Denver, 80202) through August 20.

Kealey Boyd is a writer and art critic. Her writing appears in the LATimes, Art Papers, College Art Association, The Belladonna Comedy, Artillery Magazine and elsewhere. She teaches journalism at University...