A short and incomplete list of pseudonyms employed by Barry McGee:
A pseudonym is a way to stay hidden in public. Across racy novels, political tracts, city walls, a pseudonym is a public declaration that manages to stay secretive. A fake name presumes some reason for hiding, some illicit activity: the novel passes risque into pornographic, the political tract verboten samizdat, the city wall graffitied with a blushing splatter of a spray can.
The poet Pessoa wrote under some say seventy-five different pseudonyms. Each a different poet, but multitudes in one as Whitman might say.
A pseudonym allows one to say things one might not otherwise say, even if it's a known pseudonym, you can still inhabit a different persona.
Under this pseudonym, I'll write as I please.
Though some parts of Barry McGee's work seem facile, unedited, and cheesy, I think he's a really talented artist, a rare maker of things that does so with ease and ingenuity too rarely found and one of the best, weirdest artists to emerge out of what one writer called the punk and funk junk of San Francisco.
The first piece I ever witnessed was a cluster of framed faces, cheek-to-jowl, frame-to-frame, inhabiting a corner of SFMOMA. One of those rare and beautiful moments in the life of a young looker that art could look like this, that such rules could be broken, that such rough and silly faces could look so forlorn and cartoonish at the same time (this was before the great Phillip Guston discovery of course), but still an object, a cluster that had to be dealt with, that like all good art seemed to bend the gravity and light of the room towards it.
Here, Barry McGee still does this.
SF is like all other places and communities cluster and crash. There are those who opportune to cash in stealing old tags for quick bucks and those that feel passed over (or feel passed over on behalf of others) with the inevitable resentment that follows success. Or perhaps to the smart set, McGee comes off as another sellout, tossing him in with Murakami and other more temporary flavors of the month as the ultimate unserious shill of late-capitalism, seeing his democratic spirit as mere populism, his entré through graffiti as either déclassé, crass, or the slumming it pretensions of a white-walled gallery guy trying to act "street." No one believes that Snoop Dogg lives in Long Beach anymore, leaving it far behind for Bel Air.
Rather, Barry McGee, this pseudonymous character, is always in-between, a secret agent whose cover is totally blown. A broke criminal punk and the insider, a vandal, that is a deliberate destroyer, as well as a maker. An in-betweener that can be caught in the middle of either and both, and frequently is.
Is the giant SNITCH fake graffitied (yes, a weird banner made to look like the wall was tagged, and also yes, it feels real inauthentic and weird) a self declaration, an admonition against the museum that finally and fully blew his cover?
Some misses? Yes, the animatronic guys don't feel quite right, even bad, but post-Disney, post-Paul McCarthy animatronics become as best we can, some kind of stand in for the action of the artist, who because of reality, age and opportunity can't always be there doing the action, the thing that needs to be done, continuously and present. The tableau they inhabit sometimes feels too set up, too much like a high school theatre scene for punks, except it's not, lacking the high-schoolers' ramshackle innocence.
You can be a bad boy when you're at the bottom, at the top it's unseemly. How to keep fighting but shred all the snotty arrogance of youth, that fueled the fight and buoyed flagging courage in early times...
I'm watching Barry McGee do it. Hit, miss, hit, again and again, but trying always trying, falling into ruts and emerging victorious, defining a time with a singular voice out of an army of monikers, a voice bound to inspire others.
(Image on top: Barry McGee, Installation view of Barry McGee, on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive [BAM/PFA]; © Photo: Sibila Savage.)