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In addition to celebrating their 250-year anniversary as a company, Hennessy has just announced a new collaboration with artist Ryan McGinness for this year's artist bottle. Previously, the bottle has been reimagined by artists like KAWS, Futura, Os Gemeos, and Shepard Fairey, and this year, New York-based McGinness has applied his unique aesthetic of contemporary symbology to it.
Known for art that examines public and corporate icons, with a formula he describes as “elements < compounds < mixtures,” McGinness has elevated the status of the icon into the realm of fine art. More specifically, he has done so with his "Black Hole" series, which he has applied to the Hennessy label that includes a black light component.
We spoke to McGinness about working on this esteemed collaboration with Hennessy and the status of last year's much discussed "Signs" project.
When were you first inspired by black holes?
I started painting black holes around 2004, which is more than a decade ago now. It all started because the little elements I was using in paintings, like these little flourishes and swirls, started to fold in on themselves. There's this aesthetic gravitational pull. It lead me to want to make the fanciest painting I possibly could, because to me, that's what these kind of flourishes and swirls represent. I wanted to make super fancy paintings, so they started folding in on themselves, and everything got left behind for this particular body of work. The whole series of black holes started.
Normally I think there's a negative connotation to black holes from their destructive aspect. Is that the case for you?
To me, they aesthetically represent fanciness.
So this makes a lot of sense for Hennessy.
When we first started talking about this project, I was thinking about what body of work to go from. Because these black holes have to do with wealth and luxury, and there's this kind of aesthetic pull, it seemed like a good match.
How do you approach bringing your work, that's usually on canvas or on wood, to Hennessy, and to an object?
First and foremost, I look at templates or components—where we want to artfully address these labels. At the very beginning of the project, I got this overview of the label and the packaging. I could see the whole landscape of what was being addressed, right down to like the shipper, the box, and sales.
The first step was to get an overview of everything, and get it all to scale and templated, and then partially address and build out these different areas. In particular we needed to figure out how we could do so site specifically. This isn’t an exercise in just reproducing a painting on different scales. We're actually specifically making artworks for this size.
Why did you decide to add the black light aspect to this?
I've been making black light works for a number of years. I first became interested in fluorescent paint, because I had seen these early Keith Haring paintings, which still look good. I'm obsessed with how color-fast archival things are, but those paintings still look good after 30, 40 years.
Believe it or not, pigment technology has advanced so much since then. Even within the past 10 years, all the paints for the automobiles have shifted to water-based from oil based for environmental reasons. It's been more difficult to get true metal for metallics. It's really hard to find real aluminum for instance; you almost have to find it in the back corner of a hardware store, an unopened can from the last 20 years. All of this is to say that paint technology has advanced so much in the past 10 years, and that's helped me feel more comfortable with using fluorescent.
Second, I love using fluorescent and black lights, because it forces a real world experience of the work. It can't ever be faithfully reproduced in four-color printing or in RGB. Screen reproduction is a real-world experiential pigment. That's really important to me—to make work that has to be seen in person. Because I am pursuing that in my own work, it makes sense to apply those ideas to the label. Hennessy was game for that, despite the technological challenges and the extra costs of printing.
What did you learn about cognac and Hennessy that you didn’t know before?
What I was most surprised about is this parallel in the creation of what we both do. They make cognac the same way that I make paintings; that was really surprising. I make these little drawings, which I call elements, and then I combine these little elements into compounds. This is the same process in chemistry. Compounds are used to make mixtures, which are like the paintings and sculptures and installations. All my work gets distilled down to these little elements. I found that same process in the making of cognac.
You were saying that you've been in this studio in New York for 17 years. Did you work on the project here or in multiple places?
I worked on it in multiple places actually—a little bit in Cognac and mostly in Amsterdam, which is where I go away to concentrate on my projects. I actually went away for five weeks just to concentrate on this.
What is it about Amsterdam that helps you focus on work?
I have been chilling in Amsterdam for a few years now. I’ve only been to some places in the world, but of the places I've been, Amsterdam is where I can say, "Oh, this is nice and quiet. This feels calm." My wife and I actually have an apartment there, so we try to go as often as possible. It feels like a little town. It sounds ridiculous, but it also really helps being in a different time zone.
No one ever says that, but I think it's a fair thing to say.
It helps. I just fell in love with the city; it's a walking city, everyone speaks English. I love the sense of humor there.
Did you ever get anything resolved with your New York "Signs" public art project that was under investigation for theft?
There was a private investigator. I talked to the detective, and they actually got footage from private businesses with surveillance cameras. They were able to determine that it wasn't just one person who took all the signs but a few different people. They were able to send me a couple fuzzy images of people stealing the signs.
It's good to know that's its not the same person. For those who don't know, we put up 50 signs all throughout Manhattan. All 50 were taken down, and then the Department of Transportation replaced most of them, and then all of those were stolen. For me, it was a great "proof of concept" project to see that the material worked outside. It's the same material DOT uses to make all of their other signs, but it did inspire me to take the project to the next level, which is what I'm calling "The Sign Tree." So I’m materializing the first of these in August for a show in the Hamptons. These are 10-foot-tall signposts; they’re like lampposts with branches that come off on both sides.
So at least the signs have an evolution. Do you feel that you could be doing anything else other than being an artist? Especially since you started as a curatorial assistant?
I was a curatorial assistant at The Warhol Museum, but that was while I was still in school. To answer your question, no. I just can't imagine. For me, building a practice and making work has been more about the comedy than the need to make work, or a real forced decision to make work. I’m making things and figuring them out by default—how do I deal with all these things?
You just need to make your stuff. Everything else doesn’t matter, really. It doesn’t.