Ryan McNamara: Gently Used

8 January – 28 February 2015, Mary Boone Gallery, New York

By Brienne Walsh

MEEM (silver), 2014, fabric, wood, 183 × 122 cm. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York

In Gently Used there’s a work that playfully projects the artist’s future significance. Hanging to the left of the main door of the gallery, T-Shirt Retrospective (all works 2014) consists of seven framed T-shirts imprinted with stills from Ryan McNamara’s performances and rehearsals. The term ‘retrospective’ seems intended to add historical weight to what would otherwise be mere collectibles lacking any. Known best for performances that employ dance, props and group participation – MEEM: A Story Ballet About the Internet won Performa’s 2013 Malcolm McLaren Award and was commissioned in a different iteration by Art Basel Miami Beach in 2014 – McNamara’s potential is such that if you haven’t heard of him yet, you probably will soon.

The static objects in the exhibition, however, don’t live up to the hype. Pointing to past performances, they read less like artworks than very expensive souvenirs (they range in price from $4,000 to $25,000) – mementos from an unmatchable live experience. Without the context of McNamara’s career, they could just as well be artefacts from, say, a drug-fuelled Saturday night arts-and-crafts party at a loft in Brooklyn, one hosted by a banker moonlighting as a pornographer (I was at that party; I don’t want a memento from it).

In the galleries hang, at intervals, delightful little monsters including Performance Plaque (bear), constructed from a hockey mask stuffed with fur, a plastic bear snout, a plastic cat’s mouth and reptilian, sluglike tail, which are combined to form a face. Performance Plaque (mouth) consists of a black-and-red string of pennant flags held up by a set of chattering teeth emerging from an orifice constructed from silver-lam. fabric, and resembling a Lee Bontecou sculpture. The general theme of the souvenirs is that they are horrible – in the sense that they are frightful rather than awful, and frightful in a benign, entertaining sort of way, like characters in a cult horror film rather than an ISIS video. Lit by bright spotlights, the works would have been better if hung in a spooky funhouse’s maze of dark rooms.

Ghosts seem to inhabit other works. Performance Plaque (French manicure) consists of a red-and-white-striped shirt twisting away from the wall. From one sleeve emerges a plastic hand with a French manicure, which creates the impression that there is someone that cannot be seen inhabiting the shirt. This is also the case with People Mover, a floor piece consisting of an inflated maroon sweatshirt whose arms are bent in an unnatural way and pushing a cart bearing a tangle of sunset-printed leggings that unmistakably recall dismembered limbs.

Throughout, works are covered with decoupage of stills from McNamara’s performances. MEEM (silver) consists of individual dancers swirling around a flat plane slashed by primary-coloured lines – less a canvas than a $15,000 poster. In Still (2012), McNamara’s last solo exhibition, at Elizabeth Dee gallery, the artist invited visitors to take silly photographs with props and backdrops, which he then used to decoupage sculptures for sale. It was a democratic approach to artmaking, one that has been lost in the lofty heights of Mary Boone, where a set of framed T-shirts, with their embedded memories of a party you were never invited to, will run you a few months’ rent. 

This article was fist published in the April 2015 issue.