L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
In the spot filmmaker M. Blash created for Levi’s Jeans in 2009, Walt Whitman’s voice is like the Pied Piper’s pipe. “Come my tan-faced children, Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,” recites Whitman, played by an actor (an earlier Levi’s spot purportedly featured an actual recording of the poet). As he says this, the faces of slim, young, beautiful people turn or lean forward like they’ve been summoned; one woman with windswept blond hair and rosy cheeks looks as though she’s bracing herself for a fight. He continues:
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!
For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger.
The young people begin to move, running through fields, scaling rocks and weaving through forests. Dusk approaches, and the “youthful sinewy races” converge, their silhouettes gliding across the screen in front of a still-blue sky. “So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,” says Whitman. “Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost.” There are fire works and shirtless dancing as it darkens, and the young bodies come together like the members of a euphoric hippie commune. “Have the elder races halted?” Whitman asks. “Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas? All the past we leave behind.”
Ryan McGinley, known for his wispily androgynous photographs of young creatives, shot the accompanying Levi’s print campaign. I see one particular image, a black and white photograph of two twenty-something boys embracing a horse, each time I walk to the bakery in my largely Salvadoran neighborhood. It hangs on the inside wall of a mini bus shelter and, often, aging men and women who speak to each other only in Spanish sit in front of it. Other times, my favorite panhandler, a tall, disheveled man who tells me baked goods are bad for me in hopes that I will give my money to him instead, lurks around McGinley’s sign. I don’t know what marketing strategy or loophole led this image to this particular street, but the eerie, utopic youth culture that McGinley presents hangs right in the midst of the very people it excludes.
Anything utopic needs exclusivity, since creating an ideal community means shedding what doesn’t fit the ideal. Utopic ideals also need to be slippery; they can be imagined and represented but never attained, and that’s what makes them attractive.
Ryan McGinley understands utopia better than most. He’s a 21st Century artist who still has muses, and he’s mused these muses into scenarios and settings in which they withdraw from the world and exclusively invest in each other. In 2002, when he became the youngest artist to have a museum show at the Whitney, his photographs purportedly depicted an edgy, brash youth underground in New York but they did so in a way that was so romanticized and ephemeral that they felt like they’d flown in from an alternate universe. His images of Dash Snow the tagger-turned-art-star are especially compelling. Dash lived hard, fast and grittily, which made him muse-worthy but it’s not necessarily the hardness and grit that McGinley chose to present. “I love the idea of graffiti,” he told Ana Finel Honigman in 2003. “But I am not really excited by its esthetics. . . . I love the idea of a kid writing his name hundreds of thousands of times, over and over and over because he feels he needs to.” The Dash that McGinley presented over and over again had an immense, unbridled need for community. He existed above the surface of himself, drawing people to him with his hovering openness. “So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship.”
When journalist Ariel Levy shadowed McGinley and Dash Snow in 2007, she described the intimacy of their clique: “There is a physicality between these guys, in their photos and in life, that you usually only see among little kids.” Like most utopic fantasies McGinley creates, including those for Levi’s, adult inhibitions totally dissipate in his portrayals of Dash. All that matters is to constantly stay in motion and to move toward a collective future, bringing along the people who are young and beautiful. It’s never clear where that future is or what it represents.
“Pioneers! O pioneers!” wrote Walt Whitman in 1855. “Fresh and strong the world we seize.”
“Heroin, oh heroin, oh heroin,” wrote McGinley for Vice Magazine in 2009, the year Dash died. “Taken the lives of so many great artists. Taken so many of my friends’ lives.” McGinley continued, remembering Dash’s “unconscious moving hand. He would be sitting there smoking cigarettes, writing his tag in the air.” It’s this weird collision of hopefulness, tragedy, beauty and listlessness that I think of now when I walk past the bus stop and see the two boys with their horse in the Levi’s “Go Forth!” ad that hangs where it doesn’t belong.