It is difficult to pin down the significance of a new show by Barry McGee, decades after his painting moved from ephemeral guerrilla tags and cartoony portraits on the street to occupying commercial galleries and major museums. In pursuing his work over the years, McGee has managed to engage denizens of multiple social worlds – from surfers, skater-punks and street culture aficionados to canonizing curators, blue chip dealers and deep-pocketed collectors.
In some ways, the choices for this sprawling show at Ratio 3, titled ‘China Boo’ play to a wide range of possible viewers. Highly polished paintings featuring decorative geometric designs in bright colours share space with visual references to the stuff of McGee’s craft and the history of its making: images of spray-paint cans are prominently featured but so is an odd assortment of sculptural objects. There are lightly worked wooden sculptures, ceramic vessels and found pieces of furniture, refinished in the same designs spilling over from some of the wall panels’ visual motifs. Prominently featured are a number of used surfboards shown individually or in different groupings.
A sense of the tension or awkwardness in McGee’s career of bringing ‘the street’ into the gallery crops up frequently in his untitled paintings, where the initials of some of his graffiti crews past and present become elided by overlapping panels of his more decorative designs, or where those crews’ acronyms feature as the title on a painted image of a hardbound book – as if it were the canonized fate of that street art’s arrival in the gallery.
McGee has expanded both the vocabulary and scope of his painted work since his earliest days. The neo-op art geometric patterns that figure somewhere between background and key panels in many of his larger combinatory painted wall installations work oddly – though not quite entirely at cross-purposes – with his goofy, angry and most frequently sad-sack cartoon faces. These faces are often wedged in among loud sets of letters and numbers in antiquated serif typescripts; again, frequently invoking the names of McGee’s various graffiti crews, such as ‘DFW’ – an acronym for ‘Down for Whatever’.
Despite many clusters of objects arrayed around the exhibition space – some found and slightly altered, others seemingly quickly and crudely made for display – McGee here defaults to the super-flatness of his signature style. Not only do the two-dimensional painted surfaces show few signs of texture, but the series of facial expressions that are variations of his familiar ‘loser’ visage, though not devoid of emotional signs, rely on the one shot affect of caricatures.
As an unusual side-show – or, more accurately, Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole – of oddities, McGee has laid out in a former cheque-cashing store next door to the gallery – accessible through a small, low-cut opening in the gallery walls – a profusion of images and material culture that suggests a dispersed monument to a bygone San Francisco cultural scene. Featuring found objects and works by a wide assortment of artists McGee invited to contribute, it includes an assortment of pieces by many of his peers in the ‘Mission School’ (a group of artists largely centred around San Francisco’s Mission District neighbourhood in the 1990s), along with a gushing of detritus from earlier years such as ticket stubs, VCR tapes and even more surfboards and cheap, distressed furniture. Much of this work is not for sale, but presented in total as a sort of McGee-initiated salon show of pieces by friends and fellow travellers.
The exhibition is located in the heart of the Mission District, one of McGee’s early haunts as a young artist. The area is now the scene of an ongoing culture clash between the newly arriving, and often highly moneyed, avatars of the latest tech boom and longer-standing immigrant and artist communities, with many of these latter departing in the face of exponentially rising rents and aggressive evictions. The high and low of this exhibition’s various objects underscore the awkward position that both McGee and the gallery straddle. McGee has been part of the transformation of the Bay Area, which plays out in projects such as his recent commission for Facebook’s global headquarters in Menlo Park, but is also pointed to most vociferously in the shadow salon show that parallels the main exhibition of his work.
First published in Issue 176