Barry McGee Makes His Mark
As you enter the first-floor walkway of the Berkeley Art Museum, you’ll notice a white TV repair van that appears to have gone over the ledge and is pointed nose down toward the lower floor. Three or four taggers in hoodies balance precariously on its dented body, standing on each other’s shoulders, while the one on top sprays the uppermost concrete balcony with red paint. It’s safe to say you’ve never seen anything like this at BAM. The taggers are animatronic and part of the museum’s mid-career retrospective of the work of San Francisco-born-and -raised artist Barry McGee. Though he studied painting and printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, his creative life began in earnest on the streets of the city in the late 1980s, when he went by the tag name of "Twist," and other alter egos, and made his mark, so to speak, with image-based graffiti.
The show brings street-culture attitude and the visual cacophony of McGee’s Mission District neighborhood, where he still lives and works, into a mainstream museum setting that barely contains his exuberance: it’s not an easy fit. McGee, who’s a youthful-looking 46, shouldn’t be dismissed as some talented anarchist with a spray can: he has shown at galleries and museums around the world for the last two decades, and he was championed early on by art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, the embattled director of L.A. MoCA, who, in 1996, founded Deitch Projects, a risk-taking gallery and immense project space in New York showcasing emerging artists.
Informed by solid technique, formal sophistication and a mastery of drawing, McGee’s work reflects an inherent tension between chaos and control that expresses the artist’s experience of modern urban society. That urban aesthetic and vibe is everywhere, as is his predilection for found materials. In one gallery, a wall is covered in rusted metal tiles with his small, classical etchings set into letter-press trays. Across the space, there’s a defaced "no parking" sign, a tagger’s paint-stained jacket, a ream of empty spray paint cans and a handwritten sign reading: "Do not mark on this, and do not remove this sign." Good luck with that.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition includes the artist’s familiar down-and-out, urban characters that surface in numerous drawings, paintings, cartoons and murals; and a painted wall that takes its bright red hue from the Chinatown gates and is being "modified" by an animatronic tagger. Later pieces, characterized by intricate patterning and a fluorescent color palette, are overly busy and not my favorite among his lines of inquiry, especially when they’re deployed as wallpaper or decorate the plentiful supply of surfboards scattered throughout the exhibit. Far more appealing are subtle etchings and a cluster of smallish, framed ink-and-graphite sketches of cars, a female nude, studies of a stag’s head and a tree trunk with a face imbedded in it, which show off the skilled draftsmanship McGee is known for.
He has adapted several of his large-scale, life-sized installations, like a public restroom undergoing a "redesign" by another tagger, and the neighborhood bodega advertising sundry, out-of-date items in its windows, owned by fictional proprietors Lydia and Ray Fong (McGee pseudonyms). Inside the museum, these big installations and panel/mural paintings have a movie-set unreality; they crave the scale of the outdoors, where they could breathe and relate to other urban structures, however impractical that might be.
No doubt McGee loves stuff, and lots of it. The back office of the store, for instance, visible through an open door, is crammed with stacks of LPs, used books and beaten-up, obsolete electronic equipment. "Sociology/Anthro," a placard that looks like a refugee from a forgotten undergrad course, is lodged above the doorframe. If she were with us, what would Margaret Mead have to say about this collection of cultural artifacts?
Despite his art-world success, McGee’s street cred remains intact. The son of an auto-body detailer, he came out of the city’s car and underground commix countercultures - Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, R. Crumb and the Beat poets were important influences - and he has a devoted cult following among surf, skateboard, bike and music subcultures, constituencies that aren’t ordinarily represented in mainstream museums, but are expected to show up for this exhibition in droves. But as far as attracting a wider audience, that’s a toss-up and a gamble for BAM. Whether the work speaks to you has a lot to do with how you’re wired, if you’re young, unconventional and/or tuned into his frame of reference. If you’re none of the above, the art doesn’t have the universality and depth you can return to repeatedly for discovery. For many younger people, though, the man is a legend. In the early 1990s when he was just out of art school, YBCA commissioned him to paint barricades lining the perimeter of the building that was then under construction. The wooden planks that formed an enormous mural painted by McGee were stolen and subsequently fetched steep prices on eBay. And the mystique abides.
Rather than a publicity-seeking self-promoter, he seems genuinely committed to the concept of an egalitarian society where people are not disenfranchised or left behind. If there’s a message, it’s about total freedom in making art and living life unobstructed by corporate interests, private property or crippling poverty. These days, those are radical ideas.
Barry McGee at Berkeley Art Museum, through Dec. 9. For more info: www.bampfa.berkeley.edu or call: (510) 642-0808.