Ryan McGinness’ iconography lights up Cranbrook

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

If you need a jolt of bright color this drab winter, there’s no better therapy than the Ryan McGinness show at the Cranbrook Art Museum, which runs through March 15.

“Ryan McGinness: Studio Views” fills the main gallery, where his exuberant silkscreens on canvas — some multi-layered, others achingly simple — line all four walls. In the center of the large room is a freestanding maze, whose 5-foot-high walls are covered with the screens used to produce the prints around you.

It’s a pleasingly crowded installation jam-packed with iconography and design. An adjacent gallery hosts “Collection Views,” with icons McGinness crafted based on works in the museum’s own collection.

The artist, now in his mid-40s, was a skateboard kid who spent much of his youth surfing the streets, alert to the visual cacophony of signs, store brands, corporate logos and graffiti, all screaming for attention.

“As a skateboarder,” said Laura Mott, curator of contemporary art and design, “Ryan was constantly traveling the city, looking at street signs and logos,” in the process internalizing what Mott called “the punk-rock approach to logos, which became part of skating culture.”

McGinness eventually trained as a graphic artist, and he brings that craft’s urge to distill things down to their essence to bear on all sorts of imagery — reducing the traditional madonna and child to a stylized white-on-black silhouette, for example, or having fun with the familiar iconography of traffic signs.

The man has a sense of humor. One of these “street signs” features a hand with middle finger raised, and a string tied around it — a reminder to McGinness, Mott says, not to get too full of himself or stray too far from his skateboarding roots.

McGinness told Vice magazine in 2015 that he was never actually any good at skateboarding, “but what intrigued me was the artwork that defined that culture. I became interested in how different logos and graphics changed the perceived value of otherwise ordinary objects,” like T-shirts and skateboards.

In 2017, McGinness, who’s based in New York, collaborated with skateboarding legend Tony Hawk to produce “Wayfinding,” a temporary art installation and skatepark in downtown Detroit.

McGinness’ silkscreens straddle the intersection where graphic design meets fine art. There was a time when there was nothing “arty” about the graphic arts, but that separation began to break down in the 1980s, in part due to a liberated approach that prevailed at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

“McGinness studied at the moment when graphic design was freed up to be more like art, and have much more personal expression in it,” said museum Director Andrew Blauvelt. “And Cranbrook was the epicenter of that sort of thinking.”

Three other shows are at the museum through March 18 of artists who, like McGinness, straddle both the studio and the gritty street. They are “Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street 1979-1980,” “Keith Haring: The End of the Line” and Detroit’s own “Maya Stovall: Liquor Store Theatre Performance Films.”


(313) 222-6021

‘Ryan McGinness: Studio Views and Collection Views’

Through March 18

Cranbrook Art Museum, 39221 Woodward, Bloomfield Hills

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun.

$10-adults, $8-seniors, $6 students with ID

(248) 645-3323