Ryan McGinness In His Studio

Ryan McGinness Talks His Creative Process for Hennessy’s New V.S Limited Edition Bottle

Photos by Devin P-B

Ryan McGinness is a world unto himself. The New York-based artist’s creations can be likened to a latticework of psychedelic thought and contemporary iconography. His paintings, sculptures, and environments are spoken in a signature tongue, wholly original not only in look of the images and their graphic shapes, but also in the process from which they are born. His work is truly another way of telling.

On the occasion of its 250th anniversary, Hennessy has tapped McGinness to re-imagine its label for the V.S Limited Edition Bottle. He is the fifth artist in the world to be given free reign to do so. Previously, only OSGEMEOS, KAWS, Futura, and Shepard Fairey were included in the brand’s series pedigree.

Drawing from the body of work he calls Black Holes, McGinness has electrified the label with a swirling surge of vitality. It now radiates with a florescent buoyancy. Simply put, his bottle is an explosion of life.

We recently caught up with Ryan ahead of the bottle’s limited edition August release for an all-access studio visit. Ever in his open-hearted-open-minded manner, we chatted freely, chopping it up about his mad-scientist approach to the creative process and his thoughts on our cut-and-paste culture.

Ryan McGinness Black Holes Artwork
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Mass Appeal: What established givens were you working with when re-imagining the Hennessy label?

Ryan McGinness: Format. That’s easy. You have templates and established constraints that have to do with packaging and whatever. But, what I did away with was what was done in the past. I think I am the fifth artist to work on this project, so I looked at what all the artists had done before me. Well, the first thing I did was call each of them. That’s what I did when Hennessy first approached me. [The other artists] all gave me the thumbs up and said, “Yeah, ok.” That it’s a good thing. Then, secondly, what I did was look at what they did because I knew that [Hennessy’s] choosing me was a bit of a departure for them, because I’m certainly not a street artist or a graffiti guy or anything, although I’m certainly friendly with that community and there’s an affinity in the work to some degree, but that’s not me. So, I looked at what they did and thought, “What could I do that would be the exact opposite?” The previous projects were very dark. That’s why I decided to do something light, bright, and airy, more heavenly. I thought of the other [editions] were residing more in hell, and hell is great but I wanted it to be more heavenly.

The label is based on a body of work I call Black Holes. The Black Holes developed from my interest in symbols and images that sort of represent wealth and fanciness. So, those are flourishes and fleur de lis that are derived from natural forms like olive branches and you see a lot of heraldry. Taken on their own as singular elements, they are a great way to activate the spaces in between the elements in a painting. But, they developed as these symbols of fanciness that folded in on themselves. When we started this project, it seemed like a good match for [this] body of work because of the expressions of luxury and wealth and fancy. Just visually it just makes sense too.

It was actually a technical challenge for Hennessy to [print] the level of detail of these fine lines. I think they tested like three different printers to make sure that they could reproduce these fine lines and furthermore printing in fluorescents is actually a bit of a challenge too. Fluorescent ink is very translucent and we hit these a couple of times because I wanted to make sure that they were opaque enough.

Ryan McGinness 250th Hennessy Bottle
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You were fully involved then in every aspect of this from start to finish? It felt like a true collaboration?

Oh yeah. It was completely transparent [during] the process and I was able to see all the proofs and almost be part of it in real-time, so to speak. They were game for trying to make this work and pushing it through—not only the technical printing aspect, but also the concept of going light and bright, which they had to fight for internally because it’s a departure. Not only a departure from what they have done in the past, but also it has a more feminine kind of feel. It’s a lot lighter. So, that was a fight.

Do you have a habitual way into process?

Oh yeah, yeah. [I’m] very methodical in my approach and the practice is built upon all these systems. In nutshell, all the images you see in the paintings are all derived from a sketch process. It goes from sketching and making drawings of drawings and then making perfect, more technically accurate drawings. All those drawings become the ingredients for the paintings. So, that’s one example of a systematic approach. Another is the color system. All the paints are mixed and catalog numbers are attributed to each color. There’s a binder to keep track of how those colors are made.

Even in making the paintings, it’s very kind of systematic although I don’t make plans for paintings. I build them very intuitively, but there is an underlying approach to that. Then, furthermore within the paintings, there seem to be these rules that have kind of emerged. Like: all the images are always perfectly aligned. I use T-squares to make sure everything is perfectly square.

Ryan McGinness Green Paint System
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Did you begin from your usual entry point into process when redesigning the bottle?

Yeah. Well, I make different bodies of work, so when Hennessy first approached me about this, the first question that had to be answered was which body of work will be most appropriate for the label. We decided that it would be Black Holes for a number of reasons.

In one part of the process for the Hennessy project, I was looking at different elements from their labels and redrawing them. I redrew the grape leaf that is used to make the cognac, the grapes. I redrew it and redrew it. I also retooled an element on their label, which is called their warrior arm. They have this arm holding an ax.

It’s like the family crest.

Yes. Exactly. I wanted to take the weapon out and replace it with a flower and a flower that is completely radiating eyes. In an early sketch, I was thinking well maybe a dead flower. At some point, the flower got turned up, then turned into a bouquet and then simplified again.

Ryan McGinness Hennessy Sketch
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You’ve talked openly about how the starts and stops, the struggles and fails are essential to the recipe when creating art. In essence, you believe in not hiding all the work and showing the mathematical equation, so to speak, that brought you to the solution.

Yes. That’s always important.

Often writers, poets, artists want to hide their brushstrokes and only want the viewer to see the perfection of the finished work. Why do you embrace the total journey?

I feel it is increasingly important to make original images in this copy-and-paste mash-up culture, where a lot of people are still engaged in this act of appropriation for some reason. I think we’re trying to help us get past post-appropriation. The most significant contribution an artist can make to culture is with original images. I would much rather be appropriated than be engaged in appropriation. So, in order to almost “prove” originality and integrity of images, it is important to show all of the work and show the process behind it. Not unlike, and you used this word, solving an equation. You show all the steps you took to reach the final solution and therefore you’ve proven your solution and you solution becomes irrefutable. Thirdly, in showing the process, you demystify the work. It is not that magical. It’s not mystical. Curiously, it is not religion, I should say. My work and my practice more aligned with a scientific approach than like a faith-based religious one.

Our technological-obsessed culture and its world of screens has created a non-stop feed of images. Do you think we are re-defining what it means to be literate?

I think we are learning more and more to read in layers. As it pertains to my work, the paintings will be better understood later because they will be more easily read. We will be accustomed to seeing layers, layers and layers of information. Now there are little dense for anybody, except me I think? I even push them a little far for myself. The real point is we are going to have to learn how to read more and more layers of information. We are just getting more and more visually sophisticated in our ability to read images and read layers of images. We might even have like contact lenses on which there’s this other layer of augmented reality–where there is another layer of information on top of the real world layer. I think all of those inevitable technological advances parallel what’s going on in the paintings.

But the inevitable advancement is nothing to be afraid of?

No. I don’t think so. No.

I mean, back in the day, people bugged out over the advent of the printing press. So it goes.

Yeah. I mean, that’s the case with all technological advancement and changes. You can bemoan the change or just recognize it for what it is and wrap your head around it. I’m a big fan of [Marshall] McLuhan (considered by most to be the father of media studies) and I think that’s what he always did. He wasn’t ever against anything or bemoaning anything, but just like helping us to explain and understand that this is just the way it is now.

Ryan McGinness Sketchbook
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Do you think that meaning then can be derived from somewhere between the layers of images? In your work, it feels like room is left for the viewer to do so.

Oh sure, and I think you are touching upon the intention versus interpretation. I love this idea of meaning, furthermore the meaning of meaning, the purpose of meaning. For me—and I’m glad you touched upon this—for me, I find meaning and express meaning in the individual elements, so all the images you see, every singular image is derived from this kind of sketch process and is an expression of a particular concept or meaning that can (*motioning to a painting from the Mindscapes body of work, dense with graphic shapes and icons*) be as simple as a velvet rope because of this idea of exclusivity, or maybe these two people who are sitting right in front of each other but are engaged in their phones to maybe art history references to maybe my interpretation of a Misfits album. The point is that within each singular element is a very personal meaning. Those elements are combined together to form these compounds. I use this analogy to chemistry. I’ll take all the elements and I’ll make what I call a compound, and then I’ll take the compounds and it becomes these mixtures, which are the paintings. The process of doing that isn’t necessarily embedding the painting with meaning, because I am more concerned with the formal aspects of building a painting—composition, color, and things like that. But meaning can be extracted from the individual elements. And in that way, the work is very autobiographical and personal. These become self-portraits to some degree.

Does your mind ever slow down?

No. I can’t get it all out fast enough. So what I’ve had to do is develop these systems for facilitating, just trying to extract all the information.

Because then you are able to be chaotic in the work.

That’s it. That’s exactly it.

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