a review of "Energy That is All Around Us" or Barry McGee and Friends show how it's done

By Matt Shapiro

So many identities: the art of Barry McGee
Barry McGee’s work is a breath of fresh air in a decadent and decaying art world and serves as an inspiration for many young artists. He is the primary figure of the Mission School, maybe the most influential art movement to come out of the Bay Area in the last twenty years. McGee studied at the San Francisco Art Institute where he developed a love for printmaking, illustration and painting. Stepping outside the academy, his work crossed over into the streets and consequentially became an integral part of the Bay Area graffiti movement in the late 1990’s. McGee combines incredible brush control and fine line work with big blocks of color and playful design, especially in his character work—a rare quality in the world of graffiti. His vision and approach is so joyous that you just want to get in on the fun, too. It’s amazing how such detailed and controlled work can convey so much freedom and playfulness.

When his work first started showing up in the streets, people didn’t know how to respond. They had never seen graffiti as lively and colorful as this. Up until then most graffiti was names of people, names of crews and the occasional crude character, more of a trademark than art. McGee’s work was image based, not message based, and although he was working within traditional graffiti styles he was clearly extending graffiti’s aesthetic possibilities. His graffiti moniker was “Twist,” the name of a Scooter magazine that he liked. When “Twist” started appearing in the form of a screw, and then faces and people, the graffiti and art communities started paying attention. Other artists jumped on the bandwagon, and the McGee style quickly became a sub-genre of graffiti called Street Art.

Stuff that became art
“ENERGY THAT IS ALL AROUND” is a McGee centered-show made up of friends, collaborators, lovers and early influences. Bringing work from these now renowned artists to SFAI, the place where they met and got their start, gives us a chance to reassess what they’ve done and the influences they’ve had on each other. Curated by Natasha Boas, the show is a fascinating retrospective of the Street Art movement and a candid assessment of how McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Chris Johanson, Alicia McCarthy and Ruby Neri developed both as individual artists and a community. Seeing the show at SFAI makes clear how important art schools are to producing new ideas and sensibilities, both for their students and the surrounding community. Only three of the artists in the show -- McGee, McCarthy and Neri -- were actual SFAI students, but Kilgallen worked in the library and Johanson pretended to be one, attending classes on the sly, for which he got into trouble, often.

The show is an attempt at retelling the beginnings of what is now a quasi-famous movement. The style or aesthetic didn’t come from the school, but emerged from the streets of the Mission district with roots in DIY, punk and graffiti. The “Mission School” drew a great deal from San Francisco’s diverse cultural landscape, transforming the spirit of the Mission District’s emerging Bohemian spirit with a high art skill and sensibility that was on par with anything in New York, Tokyo, Paris, etc. More so than the others McGee is credited with sparking the fire of the Street Art Movement.

Yes, it is
McCarthy is an artist that I could never quite place. I knew who she was and I had seen her work, but couldn’t quite put the two together. Often the styles of artists involved in the Mission School can seem quite similar and so it is easy for an artist like McCarthy to slip by. Nonetheless, in this show, McCarthy’s place in the movement and the striking quality of her work cannot be denied. The first piece that caught my eye as I entered the gallery was hers. At first I thought this large five-foot mass of entwined color and detailed line work was Johanson’s. I was so sure of this that I only changed my mind when I read the information card below. One of the wonderful aspects of the show is the way that it forces you to relook at these artists and understand how they drew inspiration and influenced one and other.

The construction of the painting is fairly simple: thin strips of bright colors are painted in a grid that extends from the center of the canvas out to the edges. The colors alternate and overlap. From across the room everything about it screams textile. Upon closer inspection you see that it isn’t yarn, but paint, and you immediately want to untangle the lines as you would a tangled string. That impossibility is one of the chief joys of the piece. This larger than life blast of color and line is a fine example of the playfulness of the Mission School, but lurking beneath its sense of fun is a mystery about the nature of creation. This is a recurring theme throughout the show, the balance between the joy of creating street-smart images that anyone can get and the enduring mystery of the artistry that went into them.

The illusion of ease

Aside from the amazing story of her life and untimely death, Kilgallen needs no introduction. In the past few years, there has been a growing consensus that her work is as strong, if not stronger than her male counterparts. The selection here is no exception, and exceeded my expectations in multiple ways. Her most notable work in the show is a portrait of a woman from 1997, fittingly called “Untitled.” The piece is made from multiple parts—a base, the back and a couple of smaller panels. It feels reminiscent of a shrine. In the center is a beautifully crafted portrait that fluctuates between extreme detail and simplicity, a hallmark of her style. Painted in gleaming black enamel it jumps out from the raw wood surface. Without breaking her careful composition, a panel of wood sits on top of her portrait with yet another unique Kilgallen addition, her lettering. Using enamel, the deep red letters seem to float on the flat white background. The sanded and worn edges make the piece seem impossibly old, as if it came from some ancient world. It’s a great effect, partially because we know it’s not true.

This blows me away
Then your eye drifts down to what at first seems a tastefully done silver necklace. Made of large silver bead shapes that have been violently flattened, you suddenly see George Washington’s face and then dates and then words and you realize that these are smashed quarters. It is a direct reference to her days spent with McGee goofing around, tagging trains, running from cops and leaving quarters on tracks—the results are smashing (sorry for the pun). The piece is powerfully nostalgic and like the McCarthy piece gives you a strong sense of how the Mission Aesthetic was always about goofy acts of defiance and just plain fun. Still, this is a charged portrait. Is it of Kilgallen herself, or the woman she wanted to be? It asks a lot, and leaves a lot up to the viewer to decide. Kilgallen’s work is almost always descriptive, and gives the viewer a great deal of information. Knowing that she is not here to answer to any of this is more than a little depressing.

The show was on two floors and the second one had a great deal of strong work from Johansson and this time I was sure that it was actually his work. Protruding from the corner of the gallery was a huge yellow form. Architectural in nature, it was constructed of long dowels, horribly cut pieces of wood, large canvases and a long list of materials, which may or may not be natural. The thing is weird. Lathered in an odd shade of yellow, it almost feels like Johanson’s private journal of frustration. San Francisco, like all cities, is in a constant state of flux and Johanson obviously thinks that the city has changed for the worse. The piece depicts incidences of racism, gentrification and petty crime in thick black line drawings. They are all rendered in bizarre perspectives with blocky, bubbly letters that highlight phrases like, “Hi there, I’m a $400,000 box room, won’t you come live in me?” These bits of conversation help to clean up the messy drawings, and give them a narrative and contextual force. Frankly, they still feel relevant today: just substitute $800,000 for $400,000. In the end, you’re still living in a box.
Engaged, alive and fun
Returning to their roots in the street, McGee, Neri and McCarthy recreate the graffiti art experience. There are bottles, sticks, stuff you’d find on the street all beautifully tagged with their graffiti art crew names—“THR” and “DFW.” A bottle has a man’s face painted on the front in McGee’s signature style. A group of sticks spell out, “THR” and “DFW.” Apart from this installation, a McGee painting hung nearby and is composed of large blocks of red paint, employing different kinds of lettering with a variety of finishes. McGee’s attention to detail is striking. His use of enamel paint, evenly applied and thick as hell, engulfs you. Set dead in the center of the painting the red holds everything together and keeps the rest of the painting sharp and relaxed. That type of alertness to the detail of form is what makes the Mission School so inspired and inspiring.

In the top left corner, perhaps in an attempt to recall his relationship with Kilgallen, is a hand-lettered rendition of yet another one of his graffiti aliases, “Fong.” Below, in flat dull colors that would normally be chosen to buff graffiti is a light gray portrait of a man smoking a cigarette, peering out from behind a large flat circle of even duller gray. Making up the right side of the composition is a triangle of brightly colored, smaller triangles stacked and arranged that seem to simultaneously fall and grow. It’s cool and the effect really messes with your eyes. The final bit of the piece is made up of a single panel of distressed and weathered wood with the saddest looking coat of paint that I can ever remember seeing—yes, a coat of paint can be sad. The way these elements come together are obviously McGee’s, his special vision and aesthetic, but they also seem to be freshly picked from the other artists who make up the show: the detailed portrait painting comes from Kilgallen; the eye boggling and mind altering arrangements of color from McCarthy; and the Johanson’s distress with the society around him. It’s all there, the individual vision and the deep influences.
The saddest coat of paint ever: the great Barry McGee

I am a longtime fan, just one of many who has also been influenced by this group of artists. I could not have been more delighted and impressed with the “ENERGY THAT IS ALL AROUND.” It managed to represent the collective experience of the artists as well as provide a launching off point to the future. Without being high-handed, the show gives a sense of what it must have felt like to create this work and to share such a potent vision of the grand possibilities of art.

©The CCA Arts Review and Matt Shapiro

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