Ryan McGinley, Danni & Orrin, 2020, C-print, 72 × 48".

Ryan McGinley, Danni & Orrin, 2020, C-print, 72 × 48".

Ryan McGinley

The old utopias are of little use anymore—those storied havens of self-sufficient living, unbroken meditation cycles, serenity in absentia. In this new era, streets burn. Our voices crack, our heads and our hearts. Glimpsed through our contemporary disquiet, such outworn freedom narratives show themselves to be little more than escapist indulgence dressed as countercultural dissent. Where is your utopia now? Where is your fantasy?

“My world is all fantasy,” Ryan McGinley once said before closing the circle this way: “Within my world of fantasy I am searching for moments that seem like reality.” Whether fantasy or reality (or, indeed, fantasy under the auspices of reality), McGinley’s pictorial world reads as a prelapsarian wonderland. In his recent exhibition “Pretty Free,” the photographer mused on a time of free love and freer spirits, of tripping in the many acceptable senses of the word. Bare white bodies recline nymphlike on saplings, lower themselves into streams, explore full blossoms of carmine red. In Little Nap, 2020, a woman sleeps on the bough of a distant tree, her body and mind at one with the leaves.

McGinley’s photographs politely absent themselves from context. Unburdened by identifiable landscapes, logos, or the semblance of linear narrative, they are beholden to no time or place but their own. (The figures are simply “clothed in the gentle space of what frames them,” writes poet Ariana Reines.) This is the charm, of course: McGinley’s photos propose and preserve pleasure, neither tethered nor tarnished, and in doing so reaffirm that pleasure can indeed be felt. But in their conscious reluctance to commit to the world, the images fall away. They are just too quiet, just too detached—asleep in a distant tree and reluctant to wake. McGinley visualizes a nostalgia for freedom and does so with sweetness, but his freedom feels antiquated, and this impression is only enhanced by the realization that these pastoral havens shelter a disproportionate number of white bodies. We aspire to new freedoms now, and they are anything but sweet.

Such freedoms are, by contrast, dynamic, destructive, pure: ideals of radical togetherness formed through a collective repudiation of systematized acquiescence. They are of a kind with Wet Blaze, 2013, in which a hot frenzy of bodies is illuminated by smoke and burnt orange; with Danni & Orrin, 2020, figures whose black skin catches the light as they pull close in darkness; and with Head Off (Purple), 2013, in which a figure takes flight as a couple retreats to the warmth of the thick purple sky. For Yearbook, 2009–19, Marlborough’s ground-floor gallery ceiling was papered with ebullient portraits of many genders, sexualities, races, body types: an intentionally idealized community willed into existence via the very act of being depicted, being seen. In contrast to McGinley’s usual images of reticent tranquility, these works felt kinetic, bodily, tender, knowing of both fury and affection. These figures are not passive, but impassioned. They do not seek refuge in romanticized natures (which is to say, fictions), but in the haptic realness of one another. If this is fantasy, then it aspires to intimacy, affinity, care—to fugitive moments of closeness that leave lasting impressions on the heart.

McGinley talks of his practice as a prolonged response to the death of his brother. “For me,” he once told Catherine Opie, “it’s an escape.” But an escape from or an escape to? At his best, McGinley hangs in the middle, conjuring thin places that preserve traces of our own world while imbuing them with a palpable something else. In Marlborough’s upper gallery were works from the series “Mirror Mirror,” 2017–18, which the artist made by dispatching cameras to friends with the directive to photograph themselves in mirrors within their homes. Among the assembled domestic scenes arose a sense of community that surpassed walls, floors, frames: an impression of love transferred; of life refracted.