The end of summer is a strange moment.
The energy of back-to-school jitters permeates everything. Fashion releases its flimsiest glossies in preparation for the cinder-block September issues. Galleries shutter, giving their artists and proprietors a chance to check in with the Midwest and assure their families that they’re getting enough to eat and thus return to September a few pounds thicker for the fall previews. New York and Paris turn into sweaty metropolitan ghost-towns, those with means having fled for more habitable climes and health insurance companies commence their deceptively-named “open enrollment” periods. The promise of new beginnings hangs around like an obsequious cousin. Even I get swept up in it. Whether I’m in school or not, I always work up some notion that buying new clothes these days is an inalienable right.
The opening of Barry McGee’s mid-career survey at the Berkeley Art Museum coincided with the first day of classes at UC Berkeley, and on this day the galleries are noticeably more packed than usual with undergrads—some clutching still-shrinkwrapped textbooks—taking advantage of a rare opportunity to view street art in the East Bay (in a museum, anyway).
The show covers McGee’s work from roughly 1989 to the present, with a corresponding progression in scale and spectacle. The first gallery is nearly overtaken by a large, sprawling cluster of household frames, some containing modest drawings on found paper, others framing patches of discarded produce boxes that betray a fondness for vegetables depicted as monarchs. They don’t complement or converse with one another. If anything, the juxtaposition draws more attention to pieces of signage: practically invisible characters of visual culture that, in their native context, tend to pass our eyes unnoticed. McGee’s characters don’t want to stick out so much as blend in with them. Despite the crowds, this portion of the show is nearly empty. There’s an unmitigated sincerity to the installation that makes immediately apparent McGee’s place in the elevation of street art over the past twenty years, right up until MOCA effectively put the kibosh on it last year with Art in the Streets, in which McGee also participated, as evidenced by the whirring, buzzing motion pieces in the main gallery that seem to be transplanted directly from that show. The overturned van and recreated bodega installations were a more spectacular mode of “bringing the urban condition inside the space of the gallery” that don’t blend with the environment so much as impose one type of environment onto another. That might be more in line with graffiti ethos than the homey collection of frames, but it still brings to mind the inside-as-outside themed nightclub scene from the 1998 film A Night at the Roxbury. Also Applebee’s.
I left my camera and phone back at the coat check, because I recall BAM has a strict no photography policy, but a large sign near the gift shop explained that visitors were invited to share their photos of the Barry McGee exhibit to a public Flickr pool. And share they did. The clicking of cameras and phones was matched only by the buzzing of the kinetic pieces scattered throughout the show, including one small, carved wooden bust that was rigged to repeatedly bang his head against the wall (my favorite). I don’t understand the reasoning behind this exception to the rule (and it is an exception, as visitors are still banned from taking photos in any of the other exhibits on view); it seems museum goers are being encouraged to view the art the same way we lamentably tend to view the rest of the world: through an iPhone.
In light of someone like REVOK, who synthesized his graffiti roots and enduring interest in the politics of public space into a compelling art practice, the problems of how to exhibit street art seem like a missed opportunity. In the meanwhile, McGee’s mechanized mannequins dressed as taggers will continue to sweep their arms robotically over the walls, spray cans in hand, with nothing coming out.
(All images: Barry McGee, Installation view of Barry McGee, on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) from August 24 through December 9, 2012. Photo: Sibila Savage.)