When I presented Barry McGee’s first museum exhibition in 1995—at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where I was visual arts curator—I received the kind of letter that curators inevitably get at least once a year. It was from someone who was furious that I had given McGee a show, especially at a city-affiliated institution like Yerba Buena. “Barry McGee is a vandal and deserves to be put in jail, not put in a museum exhibition!” she wrote. It turned out she was on the mayor’s anti-graffiti committee. We’re trained to respond to these letters by thanking the angry person for taking the time to express their opinion, and assuring them that it’s gratifying to hear from someone who cares so passionately about the arts. This approach usually disarms the person, and makes her feel heard. It certainly doesn’t do anything for the curator’s fight/flight response, which is itching to respond with vitriol in kind. For this curator, it clarified once again the ironies and conflicts of trying to pull museum practice into the realities of turn-of-the-century American life.
At one of the public events connected with McGee’s current mid-career exhibition—not so much a retrospective as an opportunity for celebration—Berkeley Museum director Larry Rinder interviewed Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Deitch was the first New York gallerist to pick up on McGee’s work, after having seen it at a show by Ann Philbin, then director of the Drawing Center, (and now director of the Hammer in LA), who saw it at Yerba Buena. Deitch is currently embroiled in a nasty controversy over his interest in popular culture programming at MOCA. He said, in response to a question from Rinder, that his belief is that the role of museums is to reflect the cultural developments of recent decades.
This sets up the curatorial and museological issues raised, often, and largely unfortunately, when McGee’s work is shown in a museum. While striving to engage with the visual culture of its moment, a museum can be accused on the one hand, of encouraging vandals and outlaws, and on the other, of lowering standards. John Baldessari, one of the most respected senior artists in California, has been quoted as saying that street art is most effective when it stays in the streets. Other attacks have come from those who think such programming merely panders to audiences who would not come to a museum otherwise. The irony of that argument is that attendance is not predictably boosted by such exhibitions; Kenneth Baker, long-time art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, once sagely observed, “Being populist does not necessarily mean being popular.” It has long been my contention that for contemporary art museums to reflect the times that they inhabit, they must reflect all the culture being produced: by fine artists, amateurs, and people working in popular culture (from tattooing to surfing) and now I’d add, artist working in digital forms. Bringing along the audience is altogether another issue more related to marketing than curating.
All this is a long-winded way to begin discussion of Barry McGee’s exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum, and to put aside all the political discussion of the work, which is used to reduce one of the best and most resourceful artists of his generation to a pigeonhole: a graffiti artist, or a street artist or some such. McGee and his collaborators have swarmed over the museum like a phalanx of army ants, leaving an overwhelmed and utterly transformed institution in its wake, with paintings, drawings, sculpture, video and installation. McGee’s show, which fills the three staggered ground floors of the museum, is a dominating experience, the likes of which have not been seen in a West Coast museum since Takashi Murakami at the Geffen five years ago.
That memorable exhibition was a tour de force of cartoony mash ups of cross-cultural imagery, in immense scale, full of color, daring to be crassly commercial to the point of self-satire and packed to the rafters with the most diverse audience I’ve ever seen in an art museum. McGee might very well never have seen that exhibition, but his Berkeley show can nevertheless be read as in conversation with Murakami’s, right down to McGee’s construction of a trashed-out bodega-style store in the middle of the museum, a parody of Murakami’s Louis Vuitton boutique built in the middle of his show. One can say that two of the only artists of their generation (Murakami is 50, McGee 46) capable of such sweeping, confident environments are reflecting similar contemporary mindsets but from very different starting points.
McGee grew up in a blue-collar home in San Francisco, and his understanding of the world ranges from surfing and skating to cruising the Mission District encountering drunks, assorted oddballs, and trash-filled empty lots. The switch that sent him reeling around the world was graffiti, and its ties to typology, cartoons, hoboes and trains. (For Murakami it was otaku—the Japanese youth culture of comix, animation, Hello Kitty kitsch and softcore porn.)
Upon entering the museum (past the graffiti-covered doors) the Matrix gallery to the right has been given over to the McGee show, with a terrific display of his wall installations made from discarded typesetting trays. These are among McGee’s most original and affecting though lesser known works. Particularly successful are the works that have graphite drawings wedged in by the small wooden blocks ordinarily used to hold type in place: I’ve always felt that the suggestion of art-as-form-of-work was apt. The wall-covering stacks are early signals of McGee’s big picture ambitions for installation. There are also early works salvaged by the co-curator, Dena Beard, from the artist’s archives and other collections, that in part recreate that 1995 YBCA show. Notable are the collections of empty spray paint cans arrayed like trophies, and McGee’s vintage graffiti jacket filled with pockets for his tools.
The main floor of the museum is taken up primarily by three huge efforts: a rough stack of dozens of unmatched video monitors showing, Nam June Paik-like colorful collages that reaches to the ceiling on the right rear. To the left rear is the largest iteration yet of what McGee calls his “bulges.” These are wall installations with hundreds of small, framed drawings, photos and found items butted together seamlessly, in which the wall organically protrudes like a pregnant belly. It is a visual marvel. Most dramatic is the central element of the exhibition, a building that appears to be an abandoned storefront (the artist uses a stand-in for McGee Industries called L. Fong on his truck, storefront, etc) full of useless dusty stuff from a multicultural ghetto, with lots of surprises in its nooks and crannies as the visitor walks around it 360 degrees. In the backroom a couple is having sex under a blanket; around the exterior are piles of discarded surfboards, motor scooters, lumber, and more. A hand reaches out of a potted plant to spray paint the exterior of the store. Finally the gallery is pulled together visually by a long run of red-painted works on plywood installed around the room. McGee’s now signature totem pole of hoodied figures, standing on each other’s shoulders on top of an overturned panel truck, enable the topmost person to spray paint the museum wall, is hilarious and lovely, an animatronic figurative rendition of Ladder for Booker T. Washington by Martin Puryear, shown in the same space in 2001. In the back of the gallery is a small dumpster (actually an ersatz recreation in plywood) that miraculously is revealed to contain a recreation of a public restroom complete with a spray painting hoodied figure.
In the lower level there are gatherings of vintage McGee work—the artist resisted assembling old work as expected in a mid-career survey, but relented here. Most notable is a large canvas work with early comix-like figures. There’s also McGee’s trademark painted whiskey bottles, in this case a large number installed on the wall in a kind of pie slice shape, like a Christmas tree of misery. Particularly moving for those who knew her is a small house with work inside by McGee’s late first wife, Margaret Kilgallen, in a quiet unlabeled memorial to her.
On the small mezzanine gallery above is a very well displayed selection of ephemera, mostly in cases, of the artist’s work and collections, and that of his circle of friends, family, assistants and collaborators, over the past two decades. It’s the kind of material that necessitates and rewards a lot of patient scouting. The exhibition is a testament to those artists, collectors and curators who believe that American culture is best understood as inclusive, informed by all the cultures of its people across racial, cultural, gender and especially class lines.
Barry McGee @ Berkeley Art Museum through December 9, 2012.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis from 2004 to 2012. Prior to that he was the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 1992 to 2004. In the past three years he has written catalogue on Cornelia Schulz, The Banka/Gordon Collection; the Slant Step; John Bankston Tony May; Trimpin and Jim Melchert and numerous other artists. He is a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he teaches in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours on museum practice in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner.