Does Barry McGee Have Something to Prove?

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.

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