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.

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