The Kid Stays in the Picture: Interviewing Ryan McNamara, and Becoming an Artwork

Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.
Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.
Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.
Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.
Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.
Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.

Mr. McNamara, 32, grew up in Phoenix. He came to New York in 2001 and received his MFA from Hunter. His focus was photography. He got his first real break when he met the curator Cay Sophie Rabinowitz on a ferryboat. She put him in the 2009 Athens Biennial in Greece. In the backroom at Elizabeth Dee is a still of his Athens piece, a two-channel video called I Thought It Was You, shot in the days leading up to his grandmother’s funeral. In it, he attempts to recreate a choreographed dance and fails miserably, his body breaking down to the point where the failure itself is more physically impressive than the intended dance.

It was a precursor to his dance lessons at PS1. Mr. McNamara is no dancer, but Make Ryan a Dancer, remarkably, displayed no hubris. Once again, it was more about the failure of his body in relation to those of people who really know what they’re doing. “On one hand,” he said in the gallery, his assistant still snapping photos, “it’s like: ‘Gosh, I wish I could do what those people are doing in a very basic way.’ But also there’s this thing that happens to me when I watch dance where it just makes me so—there’s such an otherness about the body moving onstage. Because it’s like … well, my body doesn’t do that. It just doesn’t at all. So the fact that we both have bodies and can share that in common is bizarre to me. I was wondering if there was a possibility to make that gap a little narrower … Hi!”

Another visitor had entered the gallery, the collector Sherri Grace. Mr. McNamara and Ms. Grace embraced.

“So what do we do now?” she asked.

“What do we do? We create a performance still!” He examined her closely. “What I was thinking was sort of draping fabric over you. Let your hair—actually, I like your hair naturally.” He found a number of wigs, and placed a long brown one atop Ms. Grace’s head, then began stacking others until she had on so many wigs that her head resembled an ice cream cone. She looked at The Observer.

“Hi. I’m Sherri.” She reached to shake hands and the wigs tumbled off. Mr. McNamara stacked them up again.

“You look amazing. I’m gonna see if I can fit one more. Perfect. Do you want to hold an apple?”

“I’m allergic to apples,” she said.

“O.K. What would be great is if you could start out more blank-faced and then get more expressive as I photograph you. I’m thinking of you like a ghost. Make a face like a ghost. Perfect!”

Although this is his first solo show with Elizabeth Dee, Mr. McNamara started working with her when she curated his project for the 2009 edition of New York’s performance art biennial, Performa. He choreographed 40 men in togas in a large group dance, working with them in twos and threes. The performance itself was the first time all of the men had danced together as a complete group so that, as he says, they were both performers and audience members.

“I was really impressed with how he was incorporating performance in a novel way,” Ms. Dee said. “He was going beyond the traditional notion of performance as the artist having a theatrical relation with the audience, then there’s this relic that remains of this event—the performance still that then becomes ancillary to the performance itself.”

He combines earnestness and humor in a way that is altogether different; it advances performance into a realm that is more democratic and (quite simply) fun than is typical. There aren’t many artists who could make strangers so comfortable so quickly.

“Performance is so self-serious,” he said, just as a new visitor walked in. He let out a sigh. “I’ll let Sam get that one.” He mentioned that Martha Rosler had talked to him about the institution’s embrace of ’60s and ’70s performance. “But she said ‘They really want the work that has gravitas.’ The ones that are so obviously a serious performance. Pieces that have a sense of humor can do that as well. There’s something about performance that’s so obvious. You know: ‘This is important.’ Instead of having that message hidden. I don’t know why it is. I think about it a lot. There’s this idea that there’s burlesque and all that on one side, then there’s real performance on the other side. And God forbid your performance does anything outside the white cube or institution. Because that might look ’80s.”

As The Observer was leaving, a new visitor, a tall and lanky young man, walked in.

“How do you feel about being shirtless?” Sam asked, inspecting him.

“I don’t mind.”

“Perfect!” Mr. McNamara said.

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