There is something wonderfully untamed about street art. Not the basic tags that tarnish everything they touch, but real street art by artists who display their talent in unlikely places and express their experience of urban life through their work. These artists are inspirational in their defiance of the gallery space, and bringing art to the average person as they go about their business is no mean feat. In fact, it could be argued that taking art out on to the streets makes it infinitely more accessible to the public than any national scheme. As such, should we really be bringing street art into commercial galleries?
Bringing Barry McGee’s work into a manicured space like Modern Art was a strange move. His pieces are big, bold and rough in their construction. Coloured squares that leave you blurry-eyed, gargoyle-like faces, urban scenes and stylised lettering all re-appear in work after work. Smaller pieces are constructed from individually framed works, whilst the largest pieces follow the same constructed format but protrude out from the gallery walls in a mound of coloured squares. In my opinion, in a pristine white-walled gallery they look out of place; they fill the space but certainly don’t dominate it. On the streets of their native San Francisco it would have been a different story.
All but one work is entitled Untitled, which renders the difference in intention behind each work hard to determine. However, to me this show is less about specific works and more about the effects created by the seemingly random placement of these framed images, at once effortlessly thrown together and meticulously positioned. Looking at the larger works in particular, you are reminded of the vibrancy of a busy city and how incredibly quickly a city’s architecture and atmosphere changes as you walk around it. But then you remember that you’re in a more upmarket part of central London, in a prestigious gallery, and the effect doesn’t quite work.
This disconnect makes me wonder whether it is the gallery that is unconsciously toning down the artist’s works or whether McGee is now creating more sanitised pieces. If you consider previous work, such as One More Thing (New York, 2005), which used piled-up cars alongside similar patterned squares, you are struck by how effectively the artist turned something ugly into interesting, arresting art. This was street art at its best; not commercially appealing but fascinating in its rawness.
Although Barry McGee’s show is bright, vibrant and unusual, in this environment it feels caged. Street art should be just that, a union of the urban and the artistic, using different materials and surfaces than fine art. It should be rough, totally unconstrained and alive with self-expression. In contrast, New Work makes you want to take the entire show down to Shoreditch and set it free.
-- Alex Field
All images courtesy Stuart Shave/ Modern Art, London