Barry McGee: Beyond The Street

The iconoclastic Bay Area artist shows his range and maturity in a new Berkeley retrospective.

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Barry McGee
“Untitled,” 1997, Housepaint on tin galley tray, 13 1/2″ x 9 1/4″
Collection of Jay Pidto and Lynne Baer, San Francisco. Photo: Wilfred J. Jones

The retrospective of San Francisco-based artist Barry McGee at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) foregrounds the museum-wide exhibition with formal etchings produced by the artist in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Presented in a small gallery, these finely executed works could be mistaken for Old Masters, though the images are in keeping with McGee’s larger body of work, including his iconic twisted screw. These prints reflect the artist’s formal training in printmaking and painting at the San Francisco Art Institute and offer an immediate understanding of his broader practice. Beyond his most widely recognized work as a graffiti artist, McGee has also worked across a spectrum of media for the length of his career, including printmaking, drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, photography, and video. As such, the exhibition promises to be revelatory for anyone who might assume his work is limited to tagging. Director Lawrence Rinder and assistant curator Dena Beard have organized an extensive exhibition that expands popular perceptions of McGee’s work and, in doing so, have established a space for critical dialogue around one of today’s most widely recognized contemporary artists.

McGee was born in 1966 and raised in San Francisco. “I can’t leave the Bay Area,” he said in an interview for this article, “I love it too much.” He began drawing at a young age and has been involved in graffiti for as long as he can remember. As a kid he spent a lot of time in San Francisco’s Chinatown, hanging out near the home of his Chinese grandmother. An early motif evident throughout the exhibition is his iconic use of red, the traditional color of good fortune found on doors and entrances everywhere in Chinatown. These iconic red doors provided an excellent contrast for tagging, but McGee also noted early on that graffiti in Chinatown was often ignored and, as such, lasted longer than it might in other places. It was perhaps his first sense of being able to alter public space.

While in art school, McGee worked as a printer to supplement the scholarships that enabled him to go college. The company, then called After Offset and now known as Hicks Brothers Printing Equipment, liquidated traditional printing equipment from small presses. McGee’s job was to run letterpress and gold leaf embossed prints from the equipment. Once the machines were running there was lots of time to draw, making it an ideal job. “Because I was around it so much, I started to use a lot of the stuff from the print shop in my work. I was fascinated by the trays used to hold the old lead type,” explained McGee. “At the time, I was interested in the artists in the ’90s like Ann Chamberlin, who were doing work about the body and stuff like that. When you pulled those trays out, the fingerprints from the printer would be really apparent on the plates from over forty years of printing. It looked amazing to me. They were touched repeatedly over time, turned around and around and around–if you looked at the edges there were tons of fingerprints all around them from the oil on the fingers. It was a nice surface. I was fascinated by it.”

A number of his works made from type trays in the early ’90s are on view in the exhibition, revealing the beginnings of a visual language that draws from stylized early Americana tramp and folk art. Liquor bottles, tree stumps, and a host of “down and out” characters figure throughout McGee’s oeuvre and allude to urban gentrification and the homeless encountered daily throughout San Francisco. These figures have been interpreted as signifying graffiti themselves, as something regularly overlooked and ignored. The artist has noted a range of other influences, including Mexican murals and San Francisco Beat poetry, as well as performance artists Survival Research Laboratories. The mix of these influences reflects a distinctly Bay Area preoccupation with collaborative, community-driven artwork. Even when featured in solo shows, McGee has often worked with collaborators, including artists such as Josh Lazcano. “Whoever is in the room with me while I am working,” he said, “is usually collaborating with me.”

Much has been written about McGee’s involvement with the so-called Mission School. The term, coined by independent writer and curator Glen Helfand in the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2002, referred to a “30-something generation of San Francisco artists who mine an aesthetic of the local streets,” namely the Mission District neighborhood and including artists McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Chris Johanson, and Alicia McCarthy, among others. On being asked why the notion of a “Mission School” is contentious among the artists involved, McGee said, “It was something that was really special and as soon as it became a brand it was ruined by someone else telling the story of what it was.” Of their shared aesthetic, Helfand noted that the material was “rooted more in an ‘up with the people’ spirit, and sometimes a messy, childlike ethos, than in the shiny, distanced intellectual aura of art theory and media critique that informs much other contemporary art.” Works were often realized with inexpensive materials, including ballpoint pen and house paint, and incorporated found objects. McGee was among the early artists who incorporated finely wrought images in his graffiti. When thoughtfully considered, street art and graffiti often bring pressing social issues into sharp focus, as with McGee’s ‘down and out’ figures. It is noteworthy that his subjects have been the same whether he was working in the street, in a major museum, or a blue chip gallery. Slyly challenging the contentious relationship between culture and commodity has been a mainstay.

From the beginning, McGee participated in shows at a wide range of indie and alternative Bay Area arts spaces such as Southern Exposure, Adobe Books Backroom, Victoria Room, Artists’ Television Access, New Langton Arts, Pro Arts, and the Lab. “If I was represented by anyone, it was the Luggage Store. They showed my work first. I always found I could identify much easier with a nonprofit than with a commercial gallery–it’s more about community,” he explained. Early museum recognition came with an invitation by curator Renny Pritikin to create a mural for the wall bordering San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 1992 followed by a number of prestigious awards, including a formative Lila Wallace Readers Digest Travel Grant–represented in the exhibition by a painting on a discarded tarp McGee found on the street in Brazil–a Eureka Fellowship, and SFMOMA’s 1996 SECA Award. Major exhibitions in the late ’90s at Walker Art Center and Deitch Projects brought his work to a wider audience. In the summer of 2001 he received global attention in the Venice Biennale directed by esteemed curator Harald Szeemann, while also experiencing the birth of his child and the death of his young wife, artist Margaret Kilgallen, from breast cancer. Since that tumultuous time, McGee’s recognition has only grown. He has been featured in solo shows around the world including Stuart Shave/Modern Art (London), Fondazione Prada (Milan), and the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (Tokyo). Venerated Gallery Paule Anglim and Ratio 3 represent his work in San Francisco.

McGee’s exhibition history is complicated by his use of multiple pseudonyms, including “Twist,” his most widely recognized graffiti handle, as well as “R. Fong” and “R. Pimple.” A 2008 solo exhibition at Ratio 3 was presented entirely as new work by Lydia Fong. When asked why he uses pseudonyms he says only that he “gets sick of Barry McGee and it offers an escape route” and that it feels “freer.” The challenge of being Barry McGee, one might gather, is that his brand is fr
eighted with so many expectations around street culture that pseudonyms might be the only way to create space for experimentation. Perhaps it’s also tied to the anonymity of graffiti–the attraction of creating something in wide-open space without wide recognition.

The Berkeley Art Museum’s Mario J. Ciampi-designed Brutalist architecture is especially well suited for a broad consideration of the artist’s work. The curvilinear poured concrete interiors are not unlike the freeway overpasses designed by Ciampi along Interstate 280 and it lends itself easily to street-inspired work. The exhibition, though organized in a loose chronology of works from the 1980s to the present day, evolves into a kind of museum-wide intervention. Chronology also presents a challenge in that McGee often incorporates older pieces into new work, while works that have shown previously are often reconfigured. McGee worked as an artist-in-residence at BAM/PFA to develop this survey over a two-and-a-half month period.

A large iconic cluster installation, dated 1998 and featuring a group of small individually framed works hung in an amorphous wall composition, is presented from the collection of the Walker Art Center. The discovery of other works was more serendipitous. An enormous untitled theatre backdrop used in the performance Falling Off, premiered by the OnSite Dance Company at the opening the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in its then-new location in January 1995, was rediscovered for the exhibition. Also included is a previously lost “tagger’s cape,” handmade by McGee with special pockets to accommodate multiple spray cans. It dates from the early 1990s and was previously featured in seminal exhibitions at the Luggage Store Gallery, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Deitch Projects, among others. It is installed near a tower of spray cans and a sign that reads: “To All Taggers, Please Do NOT mark on this truck and do NOT remove this sign. Thank you.” The design of McGee’s name in an intricate wishbone pattern above the cape indicates, in the words of assistant curator Dena Beard, “a sweet moment in what is considered an otherwise aggressive aesthetic.”

Finding work for the retrospective at BAM/PFA proved difficult. One mural from the Clarion Alley Mural Projects remains intact, nestled away behind San Francisco alternative space the Lab. Otherwise, over the years much of the work has been destroyed or painted over, given away, taken apart by the artist, or stolen. Theft is the bane of his practice. “One of the interesting things about Barry,” explained Beard, “is that he has a lot of street credibility. His tags don’t get covered up, but anything that can be dismantled is fair game. Stealing whatever is possible to steal is a reaction against property or the fetishizing of artwork–that probably frustrates and excites the artist. He doesn’t like any rules or regulation and likes this democratized system of checks and balances, but it’s frustrating to see something you worked so hard on disappear overnight.” Size is not a constraint. The artist has seen the theft of small works from gallery shows as well as large-scale public commissions, including a 64-foot mural in 1999–making its theft a candidate for the Guinness Book of World Records–and a series of ceramic tiles commissioned for public display by San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency in 2008.

Given the scarcity of objects, it is not surprising that the majority of the work in the exhibition has come from the artist’s studio. “Whenever I put up a show, I put everything that I am working on in the show, whether it’s done or not. It’s all in the show. Every last thing goes,” said McGee, while sharing cell phone images of his studio. One image features the back of a van, its doors open to reveal a plethora of scavenged objects; another features a discarded ceramic head. “I find so much stuff in dumpsters. If you can’t find any ideas, going through garbage is one place to look,” he explained when asked about the recurring motif of eye-popping geometric patterns he first saw on piano sheet music found in the trash. “I am surrounded by stuff I’ve found.”

In the past two years, McGee has become focused on the challenge of creating smaller works, work that he considers more mature. “This is me trying to land the plane, rather than flying all over the place. Could I even make a piece of artwork that hangs on a wall, rather than covering a whole wall with an installation? It became more interesting to me to see what I could produce. I love that idea. Also because it has nothing to do with anything “street art,” like what was wildly popular a year ago. Now it’s just background noise, that popularity, and I have completely distanced myself from it. To me, the most radical thing I could do would be a really traditional white cube show.”

Though discouraged by the mainstream popularity of graffiti–and even more so by the proliferation of ‘street art’ exhibitions and coffee table books–he says, “Graffiti was definitely a passion when I was younger, but now I am more of an enthusiast. It’s probably tied to youth somehow. I started when I was really young and though I am certainly not young anymore, it’s so intertwined with how kids communicate. There is no trickery with graffiti. What a person writes is basically what they are. You know what I mean? It’s a really quick thing that you do. The style, everything, the placement, the visibility, the risk taking–it all happens in a millisecond.”

During installation, the museum’s central gallery was dominated with a surplus of objects, including painted graphic panels, stacks of surfboards, an old van, and sculptural figures dressed as taggers. A stack of old televisions, such as you might see discarded on the street, were piled high near a partially constructed storefront, reminiscent of an early installation at Deitch Projects. In one corner an old box, once used to ship apples, sat amidst the art in progress. The vintage type label fit right in with the visual cacophony, as if McGee himself had designed it. Its presence in the gallery blurred the perception of art and everyday objects, which is probably exactly what the artist thought when he hauled it in from god-knows-where, quietly upending expectations around where the street ends and art begins.

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Richard Speer

Christian L. Frock is an independent curator and writer.  Invisible Venue, her independent curatorial enterprise founded in 2005, collaborates with artists to present art in unexpected settings. Recent projects include “Here and Now,” a series of site-specific interventions in historic architecture, organized by Mills Art Museum.  Her writing has appeared in Art Practical, SFArts.org, Art&Education, and Fillip Review