Barry McGee's Connection to Humanity

Barry McGee has a huge show at the Berkeley Art Museum right now. I first saw McGee's work in the Art in the Streets show at L.A. MOCA last summer, a show that both intrigued me and baffled me. In addition to graffiti, why did I want to see recreations of alleys, broken down vans, seedy places, in a museum? But it stayed with me. I keep thinking about it. Eureka! That's part of successful art, like it or not: it haunts you over time.

In relation to the McGee show, the word "Situationist" popped into my head, pulled from the yellowing memory-folder of art history class. Upon researching the Situationists, I found a context for the graffiti show and for McGee's work. It wouldn't be a coincidence if there were a connection; McGee has formal art training from San Francisco Art Institute and likely would have studied art history. Whether he sees it this way or not he is connected to history, concepts, and concerns of artists before him.

In addition to the Situationists—a group I'll look at in a minute—one can see other connections to art history in the book Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art. The work of Frenchman Ben Vautier, Le Magasin de Ben (1962), brought the shop into the art gallery, much like McGee's imaginary store. Allan Kaprow presented Words in 1961, a "labyrinth of texts" and "A physical environment overflowing with words" that were handwritten and stenciled: humble and very crude, but carrying with them a living energy. McGee handpaints images and words and uses stencils as well to recreate graffiti that he also makes outside the gallery. Others in France during that time didn't want to use the expression of handwriting, but used existing typography to bring "the street directly into the gallery by producing works that were made from torn advertising posters." McGee is channeling the concerns of many artists in the 1960s.

If you look at the Situationist Manifesto by Guy-Ernest Debord (1957) you start getting an uncanny feeling about McGee's work: here we are again, politically. The BAM website says his work calls, "attention to the harmful effects of capitalism, gentrification, and corporate control of public space." One of the prints from McGee's art school days looks to be an intaglio and chine coll√©: the text has phrases like "union" and "collective bargaining" and "political citizenship." The group connected with Internationale Situationiste put up a fight against the bourgeoisie and what they saw as the evils of capitalism. Debord wrote in his manifesto:

Capitalism has invented new forms of struggle (state intervention in the economy, expansion of the consumer sector, fascist governments) while camouflaging class oppositions through various reformist tactics and exploiting the degenerations of working-class leaderships.…The new desires that are taking shape are presented in distorted form: present-day resources could enable them to be fulfilled, but the anachronistic economic structure is incapable of developing these resources to such ends.…

One way to look at this is that what we need is harder to distinguish from what we what. Advertising plays a huge role in this distortion, pressuring us to want more. Overall, Debord protested the exploitation of the working class, and the conflict between the workers, who were paid little money, and the business owners, who received all the profits from the workers' labor. Debord, if it isn't clear already, was a proponent of Marxist theory.

The gallery, arguably, could be considered a space for the privileged, and since McGee spent most of his artistic life in a gritty area of San Francisco, he is hyper-aware of the divide between inside and outside. He bridges that gulf with this show. The BAM website notes that McGee "has brought the urban condition into the space of the gallery." Not just the aesthetics, but the condition, the mood and feeling of it, the "anarchic vitality of the inner city street." Aaron Rose, in the book Beautiful Losers, points out that by, "Living in The Mission [in San Francisco] one cannot avoid being constantly confronted by the downtrodden. There are homeless people and drug addicts living in the streets…" (42)

I visited the McGee show before it opened (photo at left), watching the minions installing it, waiting to see how it would all turn out, still curious and confused by it. I went to see it two months later. I thought I would be challenged, but I did not expect to be moved. 

McGee was in residence for more than two months creating the installation that covers the large main level, plus three smaller side galleries. On this enormous scale the viewer is completely immersed in McGee's vision and the aesthetic of the everyday street—most of that aesthetic balances between art and decay. Thankfully, the wall text is spare and adds just a few points the viewer might not know otherwise, such as that the framed artworks on napkins (photo at right) were by Barry's father, who drew on and collected what looks like hundreds of them.

In addition to the geometric pattern pieces, paintings on patched dropcloths, and collections of handlettered signs and ephemera, there are animatronic figures that appear to be spraypainting various walls. The neverending sounds in the echoing gallery include the figures' electric mechanisms and the murmurings from the column of stacked TVs (a modern Tower of Babel, perhaps?). My friend Sibila, who has been officially photographing the show for a catalogue, told me she had seen a disturbing gang-hazing video, although I did not see it. As I was taking a photograph of a creepy thing inside the invented store, I was delighted to be mistaken for part of the installation. A woman said, "I thought you were one of those animatronic characters: your arms were moving up and down." Maybe it was that black hoodie I was wearing…

The creep factor was certainly the first feeling I experienced, but it gave way to sorrow. In the lower gallery I came upon a workshed-like building with rusted tiled walls and a painting of a man crawling on his hands and knees, dripping paint, possibly crying. It was situated near a wall of liquor bottles with faces painted on them so I suppose one meaning was a man looking for one last drink. But when I looked into the shed I felt as if I had been punched; I recognized the pieces inside to be by Margaret Kilgallen, his late wife (1967-2001). Although there was no signage to indicate this, I was pretty sure what I was looking at, and I felt grief. I explained this to an older woman who was peering in after me. "Did you know her?" she asked. I hadn't, but wished I had.

In the side gallery, usually reserved for the contemporary Matrix exhibitions, a few framed drawings were locked up with the quoins and furniture formerly belonging to a letterpress shop. The rusted tiled walls were made up of printer's galleys, but I had not recognized them right away since they were presented face down. The quantity of them made it clear just how many old letterpress companies had gone out of business. More regret. But how this would affect a non printer, I do not know. More regret that not everyone would know this, too. In Beautiful Losers Aaron Rose explains that the "trays" were, "from  the factory that was housed in the building before he moved in. There must have been five hundred of them!" So the galleys were part of McGee's landscape and home turf, too.

Two iPads are affixed to the top of a low wall that play segments from the Art:21 show that was broadcast originally on PBS. In it, McGee talks about his hunger to learn all kinds of art and to be an "art jock," and his worry that he will be seen as "selling out." He expresses concern that his art is being seen by fewer and fewer people as it goes into galleries—because these are the same people, over and over, who see it— in contrast to his work on the street that can be experienced by everyone. I wonder if he realizes that the beauty of having BAM as a venue is that UC Berkeley students (who are probably not usually regular museum-goers) always get in free and can visit as many times as they like. Here is a clip from the video.

And the Art:21 video with Margaret Kilgallen and Barry McGee.

Eventually, the Situationists abandoned art, looking to directly overthrow capitalism. It seems clear that McGee loves art, he thrives on it, he is someone who has to make it and to make the connections between people. It is comforting, somehow, to add him to the link of artists who want to make change in the world by bringing that messy world into what can be a sterile gallery setting. Nothing may ever be new—conceptually—in the art world, but the individual artist can still surprise and move us emotionally with his or her personal vision.

And, to close with Debord,  who wrote that it is your job to explore and fight for important freedoms:

Your role, revolutionary artists and intellectuals, is not to complain that freedom is insulted when we refuse to march alongside the enemies of freedom. Your role is not to imitate the bourgeois aesthetes who try to restrict people to what has already been done, because what has already been done doesn’t bother them. You know that creation is never pure. Your role is to find out what the international avant-garde is doing, to take part in the critical development of its program, and to call for its support.

The call is out.