Almost a decade ago, I joined a host of college freshmen and signed up for Survey of Western Art. The name sounded daunting. Some students vehemently avoid the class because of its whispered reputation: flashcards and endless memorization of slides, a droning professor and snoozing classmates.
Because primary and secondary schools often neglect the subject, many students are unclear of what art history entails. And if they take only one or two semesters, they walk away with the perception that art forms evolve within a never-ending tapestry of periods, styles, cultures and movements. … Blah, blah, blah.
Admittedly, when you’re given a limited term to cover the history of art from the beginning of time, it can result in a straightforward story. But this bleak prognosis misses the complex, nuanced and exciting reality that is art history. Rich in its intellectual depth and wide in its cultural breadth, art history advocates a critical examination of the world to shed light on our complex global experience.
New York-based artist Ryan McGinness, born and raised in the surf and skate culture of Virginia Beach, agrees with the latter. Hanging in the entranceway of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts since its reopening in 2010, “Art History Is Not Linear” (2009) dismisses the chronological misconception of art history in favor of a colorful, collaged mash-up of overlapping images. Culling from the museum’s permanent collection, McGinness created simplified icons for 200 objects, as wide-ranging as a German expressionist painting “Portrait of Ludwig Fischer” from 1920 and a jade Mayan “Miniature Mosaic Mask” from 600-900 A.D.
Under the direction of curator John B. Ravenal, the museum offers an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look into the making of “Art History Is Not Linear” by transforming the 21st-Century Gallery into “Ryan McGinness: Studio Visit.” The divided space combines original works from disparate periods with re-creations of the artist’s studio, studies integral to McGinness’ working process, the artist’s adolescent work and other complementary, never-before-exhibited objects.
The main entrance invites guests into the artist’s studio, recreated by two 12-by-18-foot digital photo murals depicting everyday materials found in McGinness’ workshop. Complementing the murals are stacks of silkscreens and panels propped on sawhorses to resemble a factory space.
Next to this is a seating area. Bright red couches and coffee tables that hold McGinness’ junk mail — Sotheby’s fliers, postcards and FedEx envelopes — allow viewers to watch the one-hour documentary film by photographer Sherry Griffin recording the working habits of McGinness and his two assistants. Inviting the viewer into the creative process seems to be a central component of the exhibition. For example, viewers can take one of the 20,000 posters printed by the museum with a key to “Art History Is Not Linear.” Similarly, although typically prohibited in the 21st-Century Gallery, signs around the gallery declare that photography is encouraged in the exhibition.
Rounding out the space, “Ryan McGinness: Studio Visit” includes aspects of playfulness and a childhood sensibility that welcomes youngsters, with adult supervision because things mostly are hands-off. A hallway is devoted to showcasing McGinness’ student work: drawings from age 9, progressing to work he made while a college freshman at Carnegie Mellon University. From his Virginia Beach days, McGinness explored iconic, logolike graphics even while an adolescent.
Additionally, the museum offers lots of educational programs to accompany the exhibition, aimed at teaching students about design, iconographical symbols and visual culture. This pedagogical element is underscored with the step-by-step, drawn studies that pair the original works of art with McGinness’ interpretation. Students also might be drawn to the cyanotypes, “Untitled (VMFA cyanotypes #1-12)” (2010), because their hands-on process is easy to replicate by all ages and skills. The pretreated, photosensitive paper begins as a white sheet. On top, McGinness arranged cutout templates of the icons into an aesthetic composition. Then, he exposed the paper and cutouts to sunlight. Where the sun hit the paper, it left a deep blue background. The blocked areas remained white to create the final image.
This exhibit advocates a re-investigation of art history and art-making. It encourages participation, inspiring excitement in students and adults about art and its larger narrative that exists outside museums or classrooms. Art history bombards us daily as visual culture. With each object, there’s a story. S
“Ryan McGinness: Studio Visit” runs from till Oct. 19 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard. McGinness will speak Feb. 27 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. in the museum’s Leslie Cheek Theater. Tickets cost $5 for museum members and &$8 for others. For information, call 340-1400 or visit vmfa.state.va.us.