the Barry McGee Retrospective at BAM/PFA

By Luke Shalan

Photo: Sibila Savage
All rights reserved to BAM/PFA
Is the artist a sellout? That’s the central question about all street artists. From the beginning of the street art movement, one of its core philosophical beliefs is that art should not be restricted to galleries, museums and wealthy people’s living rooms, but should burst out into the public sphere and take claim of the world. From this perspective, everything is a potential canvas and the gallery becomes the streets and buildings we share everyday. It is both a civic-minded and civil-disobedient ideal and there always has been an inherent tension between street artists and the law.

With the movement’s success, some street artists have abandoned this core philosophy in favor of the money, fame and safety that come with gallery and museum shows. A prime example of such a “sellout” is Shepard Fairy. He brought a pure street art aesthetic to the mainstream with his wheat-pastes of “Andre the Giant,” and his street name, “OBEY,” giving many similarly minded artists inspiration. But he soon took a commercial turn, founding a graphic design firm with his wife, churning out designs for the Black Eyed Peas, creating the press campaign for the film Walk the Line and eventually starting a clothing line—the last refuge of scoundrels.

Fairy’s claim that his work is still street art seems ludicrous. For many street artists and fans his work has lost the core elements of what the movement stands for and opens the door for the commercial taming of this vibrant, outsider culture. This migration from the street to more traditional art venues is going to be fraught and controversial, even when the artist is much less crass than Fairy, and as talented and challenging as Barry McGee, who is receiving his first ever midcareer exhibition at BAM/PFA.

As I left the street and entered the Berkeley Art Museum I noticed that Barry McGee had tagged his own show, or so I was told. This leads to the inevitable question: how do you tag yourself? Was McGee the street artist tagging McGee the Museum artist? Whatever the case, the bright red “Amaze” written across the front doors was both visually striking and thought provoking. He also tagged his exhibition poster and using a fire extinguisher wrote a twenty-foot tall “snitch” on the sidewall of the museum. Skeptics might say this was arranged with the museum and incorporated into his show to give it some street “cred”—it cleverly anticipates the criticism that might come. Right before I entered the exhibit, in smaller, less thoughtful font, were the words “sell out!” scribbled over McGee’s door piece. This I was told, by the museum clerks, was only written a day or so ago and was going to be removed. I guess the only graffiti that was going to be shown in McGee’s exhibition was his own, whether it was planned or not.

When you enter the Museum the whir of simple electric motors hums throughout the space. There is a main gallery on the lower level, a wing directly to the right and a shallow staircase leading to a wing on the left. The whole space is relatively open and bits and pieces of McGee’s work are visible from the doors as if in a state of fragmentation. This sense of disintegration catches the fractured nature of street art in the conventional setting of the Berkeley Art Museum.
Photo: Sibila Savage
All rights reserved to BAM/PFA
A wall of steel tiles, some rusted and others dark-silver, catch your eye, leading you into the right wing of the museum. Dispersed throughout these tiles are small sketches framed in rustic wooden frames. The sketches are doodles, caricatures really, of goofy people with wonderfully expressive attitudes and quirky expressions. To the left of this installation is a smaller collection of steel tiles with “old-school” chalk tags, which seem reminiscent of the type of pre-graffiti graffiti that appeared on train cars after World War Two, when there was an explosion in the population of itinerant men traveling on the tracks. McGee clearly understands not only the phenomena of street art, but also the history of this type of public expression.

Along the back wall of the right wing is a classic McGee display of photos, drawings, paintings and scrapbook images in recycled frames. These images cover the majority of the back wall with brown dripping paint behind them. It seems to be a scattered chronology of McGee’s present, past and potential future, his likes and dislikes. It feels like a creative map or a log of McGee’s history as an artist.

A large beat up grey canvas hangs on the wall opposite the steel tiles. A simple figure hugging a ball is “rolling away” from the viewer. Cans of old spray paint, a jacket filled with paint materials, makeshift extension poles for painting high areas and photos of McGee at work in the streets are displayed next to the canvas. Dispersed throughout this archive of his old materials and memories, are paintings on every open surface. This is right in line with the ideals of graffiti art: every surface is your canvas.

Photo: Sibila Savage
All rights reserved to BAM/PFA
Leaving the right wing and entering the main gallery floor, the show opens up. Surfaces are covered with bright contrasting geometric colors, signs in creative fonts and plywood paneling. The words “99 R. Fang” read across the top of what looks like a run down convenience store in the middle of the gallery. Trash covers the floor around the store and a remote powered arm paints the sidewall from behind a tree in front of the store. Another street artist balances precariously on the shoulders of a tower of guys standing on a tipped over van. The invasion of color along with the run down installations makes the viewer really feel like they are walking through his work on the streets. A cylindrical tower of TVs flashed colorful images and clips of McGee and fellow street artists at work. There is a sense of the loose, creative vibe and philosophy of the street.

The color, the large-scale installations and flashing videos are close to overwhelming. This overload is broken up when leaving the main area. The staircase to the left wing is one of the only surfaces that McGee has not covered. As you step into the left wing there are surfboards in every corner, painted in the bright geometric colors and more framed paintings and drawings on the walls. Cases fill the floor. The sense of the past seems apparent through the items in each case, some of which are dedicated to fellow street artists. Collections of sketches, objects, notes, (all behind glass) give the feeling of an anthropological study.

This installation is a brilliant hybrid, both respectful of the street from which McGee grew up in and draws inspiration from, and the museum, which at its best records and preserves our most influential and controversial artists.

©Luke Shalan & CCA Arts Review

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