Barry McGee’s urban art takes over Berkeley Art Museum

Installations by Barry McGee at the Berkeley Art Museum through Dec 9. Photo: Sibila Savage

The savage, often red-hued work of San Francisco artist Barry McGee, presented in a mid-career survey exhibition by the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), threatens to take over.

Not content with consuming four galleries of the museum’s parking structure-like interior space, the man known generically as a “graffiti artist”— and more intentionally recognized as a leader in urban-inspired art — is stopping passers-by with “SNITCH”, painted in 25-feet spray-can font on the museum’s Bancroft Street façade.

McGee, who bears the tag name “Twist”, developed his skills on the streets. Refining and expanding his visual command while training as a painter and printmaker at the San Francisco Art Institute, he has an elegant mind and the full potential of a master draughtsman.

His brain-boggling torrent of expression,  seen in solo exhibits at places like Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center in 1998 and San Francisco’s Center for the Arts Yerba Buena Gardens in 1994, catapulted his trademark “come closer/stay away” message onto the national stage.

McGee, whose tag name is “Twist”, developed his skills on the streets. Photo: Styrous

BAM/PFA Director Lawrence Rinder and co-curator Dena Beard have brought dignity and depth to the retrospective. Managing to encompass seminal work from the past (collected in glass-enclosed cases in an upper gallery), and the future (with terrific re-imagined installations still under construction 24 hours before the opening), the exhibit performs a remarkable balancing act on the pinnacles-to-date of MgGee’s career.

A store selling DVDs and VCRs, pepper stray and egg rolls hunkers down, surrounded by clutter and barely 20 feet from a glaringly yellow dumpster filled with bicycles, vacuum cleaners and other discards. Both structures appear docile compared to their neighbor.

This is a white van, upended on its front cab. Diving off the museum’s concrete balcony, a tower of workers balances precariously on the van—and on each other’s shoulders. The top-most “mannequin man” sprays red graffiti, his arm mechanically traveling back and forth.

McGee’s aliases, his alter egos, are everywhere. Floating, beheaded across musical scores; scaled to monstrous size on glossy red walls; etched eternally on letterpress trays, their worn, beleaguered humanity bends under the weight of urban chaos and oppression.

It’s a protest, but one with humor and energy. Often, this is delivered with color, like in one enormous red wall, scarred with a twisting path of geometrical patterns leading to nowhere.

“That took two and a half weeks to complete,” said Beard, during a press tour of the exhibit. “Go look at the detail.”

It’s good advice, for this work frequently projects global statements, but articulates them with miniature essentials embedded in the whole. Because it would be possible to overlook the fine-tuning and intense contemplation behind the sheer bombastic riot of color, pattern and eclectic mediums, spending time with McGee is the only way to digest the scope of the exhibit.

“With Barry’s work, you can never really step back all the way,” said Rinder.

Beard, agreeing, added, “It’s all an act of art.”

And the artist himself?

Remaining silent, dressed unassumingly in a startlingly white sweater and applying finishing touches to the VCR shop, McGee looked like an artist in his element, poised on the precipice of whatever urban anarchy he might have planned for tomorrow.

For more information about the Barry McGee exhibition, visit the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive website.

Want to get a recap of all the day’s Berkeley news in your email inbox at the end of your working day? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.

Print Friendly
Tagged , ,
Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comments policy »
  • GuestGuest

    It sounds like a novel that Tom Wolfe could have written in the 1970s. 

    A graffiti tagger manages to convince the academic art world that he is a great artist.  Fawning over this great talent, the academics let him write the word “snitch” in 25-foot-high spray-paint letters on the front of a university art museum.  Everyone knows but no one mentions that by spraying “snitch,” the artists is imitating criminals who intimidate people to prevent them from reporting crimes.

    And, in the final hilarious comic touch, a conventional art critic writes that the tagger has “an elegant mind” and the exhibit has “dignity and depth.”

  • GuestGuest

    On second thought, I don’t think Tom Wolfe could have come up with something as grotesque as the claim that this exhibit brings “dignity” to the museum.

    We have gone beyond Tom Wolfe and reached the level of George Orwell.

  • Big Brother

    I liked it more when it was Basquiat.  Look, you better chill.  You’re starting to sound double plus ungood in your rants. 

  • Bill N

    Well  I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet.

  • Guest

    Or watch “Exit Through the Gift Shop” for the ultimate commentary on the consumerizing of graffitti artists.
    (hint: it’s b.s. )
    (those who don’t sell out hate the b.s.)

  • Rene Torres


  • Akmonday

    Barry’s art is extraordinary, I can only imagine mr guestguest hasn’t actually seen any of it beyond the pic above of him tagging.

  • GuestGuest

     Read my comment more carefully, and you will see that I was talking about the word Snitch on the front of the museum, which glorifies thuggery and crime.

    I suspect that this was not McGee’s idea but the idea of the museum administrators, who hope this bit of sensationalism will attract attention to the show. 

    Of course, members of the art elite got where they are today by being obedient, so they could go straight from college to PhD, to a good job with a university or a museum. They are still repeating the sort of gesture that Tom Wolfe satirized in the 1970s precisely because they never questioned the ideas of their teachers. It is not surprising that these mild-mannered professors are fascinated by outlaw thugs, who represent the sort of disobedience that they themselves are incapable of. 

    Of course, museum administrators are also very comfortable economically, and they don’t think about the effect that this thuggery has on people who are struggling economically.

    For those who are not good at reading, here is my initial comment again, so you can see that I was talking about the word “snitch” spray painted on the front of the museum:

    “Everyone knows but no one mentions that by
    spraying “snitch,” the artist is imitating criminals who intimidate
    people to prevent them from reporting crimes.”

  • Lou

    I don’t often reply to comments, but I’m finding this stream fascinating.  Especially the labeling of my review as “conventional”.  It begs for more investigation: What is meant by the term?  If it’s accurate, then what is “unconventional”?  And how was it determined that this was the background of the writer?  And, do arts reviewers influence public perception of the artist?  And so on.

    As for dignity, what I wrote was that the curators brought dignity to the art of their task, not to the museum itself.  It would have been possible to skim the sensational aspects of MgGee’s work and overlook the intense explorations behind his tagging history.  Whether or not you agree there is depth buried within, such a treatment would have cast an air of frivolity over what is, for good or bad, years and years of a man’s work.

  • Curatorial Grad Student

    I agree with Lou that there is a lot of depth buried in this exhibition, however it seems like everyone missed it. No reference to Barry McGee’s formal training and education, involvement with the mission school, or the issues he is trying to address such as; appropriation, access, and permission. I will say he is definitely not a criminal and frequently collaborates with institutions, individuals, and businesses to create lawful work on the streets. Snitch was spray painted on the outside of the building with permission from administrators, although they were not aware of what would be painted. And if you look closely it is not painted directly on the facade, but on gray canvas. The tag demonstrates Barry McGee’s intentionality to recreate the street in the museum, while breaking down the boundaries and jurisdictions of the institution. Since the piece went up many kids and taggers who do not understand the intentionality of the work have added their own tags to the BAM/PFA building and signage. If BAM had been smart, they would included a community art space in the show, where taggers could learn about access and permission, and be granted permission to express themselves.