Installation shot of the Berkeley Art Museum’s exhibition “Barry McGee.” (All photographs are by the author for Hyperallergic)

BERKELEY, California — Recently I went on my first visit to the Berkeley Art Museum to see their Barry McGee show. To be honest, I was mostly indifferent to McGee walking into the show, and largely skeptical about graffiti or street artists’ role in a museum setting. Although the show convinced me of McGee’s talent, it left me wondering about representing graffiti institutionally. Having studied painting and printmaking at a San Francisco Art Institute, and several large shows in museums and galleries across the world, the San Franciscan native who garnered fame for street tags like Ray Fong, Lydia Fong, Bernon Vernon, Ray Virgil, and Twist, is no outsider to the art world anymore.

What immediately struck me most about the show was it’s constant reiteration of McGee’s obsessiveness. The animatronic sculptures (some of which are pictured below) and life-like versions of McGee loudly and ceaselessly spraying walls in the gallery was overwhelming, and I got the sense that McGee’s artistic energy is too. Coming into fame with the likes of other noteworthy street artists like ESPO (Steve Powers), Shepard Fairey, and more, McGee has maintained his artistic practice on many levels. While his museum installations are immense and impressive, one gets the feeling he is often still out at night tagging trains and bathroom walls. Part of the success of McGee is his passionate commitment to street art while also successfully navigating museum setting.

Animatronic wooden sculptures tag the gallery walls.

In a rare display of an exhibition catalogue ringing true, the museum writes that McGee’s “installation environments express the anarchic vitality of the inner-city street.” By placing trash, surfboards, make shift shacks, animatronic robots constantly tagging, next to framed artworks and photographs, McGee has kept the inner-city San Franciscan feel alive and well. Although I am new to the area, walking around downtown San Francisco, you notice the contrast of the beautiful fog and sudden sunshine, the pleasant people, the Asian Art Museum on top of the Tenderloin, where one goes to get any drug desired and see some of the most down and out of San Francisco’s residents, and then turn a corner to find yourself in the swank financial district; the city is rife with contradictions.

An animatronic version of McGee tagging a bathroom mirror inside a shipping container.

Although I came to admire graffiti artists partly for their work’s daring nature, a skeptical part of me wonders if McGee’s show was too interested in proving to the viewer that McGee still has ‘it,’ meaning his raw edge that attracted attention for him in the first place. Why else have animatronic versions of McGee scattered throughout the exhibition, tagging the museum walls (above)? Or why have installations proudly displaying bolt cutters and stolen anti-graffiti signs (below) except to drive home the fact that McGee is in fact a graffiti artist, not just a museum artist, to separate himself from that crowd. When compared to artists like Fairey who seems to be mostly making t-shirts and hats instead of tagging walls, (see this Youtube video where Fairey’s wife lets slip that Fairey hasn’t gone out tagging in awhile) McGee seems to be fundamentally more committed to the streets, but the way he shows it feels somewhat contrived.

An installation of bolt cutters, stolen signs, and tags; showcasing the graffiti artist as both lifestyle and artwork.

However, documenting a street artist’s work is often an overwhelming task. As I said about McGee in a recent post about SFMoMA, McGee seems to tag everything everywhere, photograph everything, and consider his lifestyle an inherent part of his work’s value. How else could an exhibition of his exist without that being made clear, unless the quality of the work was compromised. In the same way that McGee’s street art found itself in the spotlight, the myth of the artist and his museum shows continue on the same path but noticeably with a larger budget each time. We feel this as we enter the museum through it’s tagged doors and explore it’s chaotic galleries, but I felt awkward about this staged spectacle when on the outside museum wall there is a banner with a fire extinguisher tag reading “snitch” masquerading as a real tag (pictured below). The banner tries to look like the ‘real’ wall behind it, but it isn’t, this was the only moment when I felt a real dissonance with a street artist showing in a museum.

A fake tag outside of the museum reading “Snitch”.

Barry McGee continues at the Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, California) until December 9.

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...

23 replies on “Does Barry McGee Have Something to Prove?”

  1. Having never been to the Berkely Museum, I can’t say for sure how this fits in with their overall program / exhibition didactics, it does seem to me a lot like the more ‘graffiti/street art’ focused sections of the retrospective are intended to be educational, and represent what it is ‘like’ to be a street artist. Otherwise why the need for animatronic mannequins tagging bathrooms?

  2. Given how many times it is mentioned in the post, I think it is worth mentioning that the person tagging walls in McGee’s life-sized animatronics is not McGee, but his assistant Josh Lozcano aka AMAZE.

  3. Well, considering Barry McGee was one of 8 artists featured in MoMA’s 2002 “Drawing Now: Eight Propositions” show, it seems like this whole review is based on a deeply flawed premise. Do your homework, please, before posting a grossly uninformed ahistorical piece of criticism. Seriously. I suppose the show was, as they say, “before your time”…..but that really doesn’t cut it. Barry McGee hasn’t been an “outsider” or whatever in a solid decade.

    1. I say right at the beginning that he is not a stranger to the art world… Just because he has been involved with it for sometime doesn’t mean that he isn’t using tactics that make him out to still be a raw street artist, I found that interesting and maybe problematic. Are you saying he hasn’t been one in a while?

  4. It can also be noted that this is a retrospective exhibit of his past 20 years of work. It’s no to be seen as one body of work. The main open area is his current work, with smaller rooms and side areas being older works. Many of the vitrines are works and photos contributed by his friends and associates. The show is all Barry McGee, but not nessasarily all by McGee.

    1. I’m really interested in what you mean by your last sentence. Can you tell me more about that idea? It’s an interesting way of thinking about an artist to have what is presented as a solo-show be much more…

      1. Barry McGee is more than the sound one man painting. So much of what he creates employs the skill and dedication of the people he surrounds himself with. Literally. His crew of assistants is both his machine, and his inspiration. In the vitrines he gives many of his peers and crew members a bit of his spotlight. And in doing so, he builds on the cacophony if visual information bombarding the viewer. The show is all Barry McGee in that it is without a doubt, his art. His vision. But he gives shout outs and respect to his crew mates; THR, PVC, DFW, CBT. In a way, he has very little of his own, “graffiti” in the show. It’s him paying respect to those that are still out there, still doing graff. He loves that, so he folds it into his art. Barry McGee is the sound of all people painting….all at once.

        1. The brand name of “Barry McGee” goes quite far in selling tickets while in reality much of the artwork that people view in the museum is fabricated to appear just like the Barry McGee trademark style all by concerted effort of McGee’s bevy of assistants even as McGee himself is advertised as some derivative kind of “street artist” which is supposed to carry a very anti-establishment connotation. The exhibition to me unabashedly parallels Disney World with its unrefined jumble of quotidian urban simulacra.

          1. It shocks so many people just how desperately oblivious fans of graffiti are. But when these same fans buy into fake tags drawn by an artist’s assistants in an institutional setting one has to wonder why sometimes humans ditch reality for often very much lesser and meaningless life experiences. I guess they think their lives aren’t plain knockoffs or that society at least doesn’t care enough to notice and say redeeming things.

          2. It’s just as obvious that you are not a “fan” of graffiti as it is that I am a “fan.” But we can move past that.

            I have issue with your calling them “fake tags” drawn by an “artist’s assistant.”

            From an outsider perspective I can see that. But when one takes the time to try to learn more about the work, that assumption falls apart. As any artist to use a manaquin in art does, it is to make effort to re-create an act. The re-creation is in fact not a real act, yes. But that does not then make it fake. It’s a sculptural work. Nothing more. And if tags inside the museum is to be brought up, I believe the only spray tags are dirrectly associated with these anamatronic figures. The three that I can recall are all of the writer “amaze.” He’s a real guy, spraying his own tag. And in most cases, the sculptural work is a dirrect recreation of a real event; think the bathroom tagging piece.

            And please let’s not get into the evaluation of maturity levels. That’s your own prejudice that you may want to think deeper on.

          3. How can anyone believe that numbskull graffiti writers who like to deface public and private property somehow represent “street” life when in fact taggers vehemently refuse to even acknowledge the renouncements of their selfish and revolting acts by the vastly exacerbated majority of citizens. What makes the Barry McGee show so downright obnoxious besides the supercilious fake tags is that it is being showcased in an institution of pedagogy. Rather than nimbly denouncing graffiti as the awfully quizzical copycat vandalism that it is the museum panders Barry McGee to make money.

            If hypocrisy cannot be seen in the incest fiesta that “representing the streets” has become it is due to xiphoid loving and honoring the security that only Walpurgisnacht incest offers.

          4. JD, we all get that you don’t like graffiti. I’m curious if you see all if the work in the show as directly relating to graffiti? Do you see any artistic value in what Barry McGee has produced?

          5. The biggest mistake an artist can make is believing in the myth which states that artists possess the creative license to do whatever they feel can get their rocks off. Barry McGee aligns his work alongside vandalism since vandalism makes him look like a bad boy.

            Intrinsic to art no matter what culture we are speaking of is the eternal notion of the esoteric, weird, or other and what faster and better way to appeal to wealthy art collectors than to pretentiously claim that your work was spawned from and represents the crime-infested “street” underbelly.

            As far as being totally unoriginal goes graffiti writers get the award for being the most derivative and desirously commercial.

            Barry McGee does have a modicum of talent though it is sadly that of mimicry.

  5. The “SNITCH” tag would be “fake” anyway – as any illegality has been removed by the museum simply by allowing the works. IE: even if it were painted onto the building it’d be “fake” since there’s permission to do it. To take this permission a step further and paint the “fake” tag onto a clear tarp only adds a layer of commentary to this whole interesting debate about legality and vandalism. In a way, it draws more attention to the dissonance, much more so than had it simply been executed directly onto the surface. Playful and subtle, yes. The banner ends up revealing a lot more than it attempts to “mask”.

    The author seems to have missed a few other points that other commenters have quickly picked up on:
    #1 – this is a Retrospective of 20 years worth of work. 75% of it was already made and shown prior to Shephard Fairey and other “Street Artists” started to garner public acclaim. They did not burst out onto the fine art market together, McGee proceeded them by several years if not a full decade. This is an important distinction to note and would clear up a lot of the author’s expressed “skepticism”.
    #2 – The robotics are not meant to be McGee himself, and to imply so is to miss a few key points that are so obvious that it’d be useless to correct them here.
    #3 – “Staged Spectical” – one of the only points the author gets right. It is a museum, after all, and that is the point.

    Good photos, though.

    1. Good point about the “SNITCH” tag, but I wonder if the museum wanted the viewer to realize it was on a banner or not, I got the feeling like they didn’t want us to know, which felt disingenuous.

      My skepticism remains even with the artist’s work being old and preceding other artists’.

  6. To be a graffiti writer it is crucial just how one sublimates their misanthropy to justify destructive perpetration all the while successfully hiding from themselves emotions of fear stemming from cultural isolation. Much in the same way that a police officer will murder to “uphold the law” taggers will deface private and public property to “be true to the streets.” Actually both cops and graffiti writers divine mental inventions of their own creation acquitting themselves of hypocrisy only to project it on others. Ironically cops and taggers build reputations off of keeping order wryly perverted. At the root of the problem is the question of what keeps cops and graffiti writers so antagonistic to peace. The answer is apparently the sad failure to properly mature.

    1. woah. I don’t know if we can conflate the work of taggers with those of corrupt or unjust police officers, or say that both have failed to properly mature.

      There is a freedom allotted to an artist who can do whatever wherever that most institutions simply cannot offer. Some might say art has been stifled by the inflexibility of museums, and naturally artists have sought new platforms, like graffiti, to explore or to reach different audiences, not only to destroy property.

      I do think we need to question the notion of ‘being true to the streets’ in some ways I think McGee has transfered his practice to function in both the streets and gallery setting well, but I find the need to constantly reference the streets odd, especially having been in gallery settings for sometime. Whether or not he is a mature individual is not for me to decide, especially here.

      1. The notion of a genre of art that represents the “streets” comes galvanized directly to us from museums. Graffiti will always just be a given categorical marketing strategy which rogue immature artists employ to become more recognizable to high society. Validation for thus adopting an institutional economic xenophobia happens actually twofold for graffiti writers’ ostentatious differentiation from the public en masse. Historically speaking graffiti has no doubt been the establishment’s most intrinsic, cherished, and reliable commercial endeavor ever.

  7. I’m sorry JD Saizon is such a hater, using McGee to hone some kind of theoretical axe. I only wish McGee would do more outdoor projects -mural size wall pieces or installations -graffed or with consent – to counter the billboards and commercial visual junk polluting the world. I had seen several of the pieces at the McGee shows at Dietch in NYC. McGee is freakishly focused and in control, even when bringing lots of the street into the world of museum/gallery – just look at the supporting superstructure for the tilted up van, having a very clear precedent in Raushenberg. He makes his statements very much in his own voice. There is great materiality and energy in the show, the robotics and noise conversant with Bruce Nauman. The assistants question is for bushleague critics – at this level everyone uses assistants to a greater or lesser extent.

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