Perrotin opens an exhibition of works by Barry McGee

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Perrotin opens an exhibition of works by Barry McGee
View of Barry McGee’s exhibition ‘Fuzz Gathering’at Perrotin Paris, 2021. Photo: Claire Dorn. © Barry McGee: Courtesy of the artist, Perrotin, and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

PARIS.- Broken paint theory
“Throw-up”: paint spewed. The term refers to a form of quickly executed graffiti using rounded letters, which has long been Barry McGee’s signature practice. Illegal painting with an urban diffusion is like a process of contamination. Paint is corrosive, toxic, instinctual, repetitive: a ritualized and collective painting.

Barry McGee has mastered the art of turnaround, which surely stems from his legendary street alias, TWIST. In his studio, graffiti extends beyond the plastic form, reaching towards experience, material, memory, attitude, an underground community. Inside or outside, Barry McGee’s painting is thus a situationist drift within anesthetized1 cities. Privatized cities where structures proliferate and hostile architecture2 blocks errant lives: the vertigo of skaters, pigeons and all other potential sources of disorder. So many landscapes are rendered fearful under video surveillance, where luxury brands and banks barricade themselves off from social struggle: intolerant cities fearing broken windows3.

A reluctant icon of the California scene, exhibiting legally or illegally in the streets, in alternative spaces or in institutions, Barry McGee always paints according to the exaggerated scale of the urban landscape. Since the cusp of the 2000s and his exhibition Indelible Market4, the artist has produced immersive installations: from extra-large dioramas in homage to urban chaos and its underground visions, to so-called popular or folk cultures, to surf culture. Photography, sculpture, drawing, performance, video, salvage, archives, fanzines: the artist manipulates different media without hierarchy, but always akin to a painter who explores, documents and manipulates urban memory. He assembles many elements using the dynamic of the cut-up, to fragment the paint and its sensations.

This is evidenced by The Boil5 —a device often activated by the artist, which allows him to unify his materials all while blowing up and collapsing walls he uses like structures. Barry McGee’s DIY painting is an outgrowth of the urban landscape and the undertow of the Pacific Ocean.

What does Barry McGee show us? The faulty language on the walls of the street: “THE HILLS ARE ALIVE” spotted here, “PIGS MUST DIE” spotted there. / Anarchist Logo / Representation of graffiti in action, a painting of imbalance, a painting of adrenaline / waste / illegal lettering / typographies as tributes to historical figures, friends, those in the shadows (in prison or dead)6 / a pick-up submerged in items and objects, a makeshift tent, an ultra-precarious habitat / hooded automatons, done in a realistic or brut style / portraits in the shape of potatoes, portraits of otherworldly hobo-drunkards / flash of empty sky / hunch-backed silhouette, amputated caravan / punk record sleeves / punk typography / punk sounds / upturned, stacked trucks / geometric patterns / moiré effects / battered cars / screenshot from Fox News / constellation of ceramic dishes / papier-mâché forms and scratched, ruined surfboard totems...

Digging into his family history explains the recurrence of Asian figures and the display of violently overturned cars and trucks in his paintings. Barry McGee was born in San Francisco in 1966 to a Chinese-American mother, who worked as a secretary, and an Irish-American father, who specialized in car body repair and customization. His father compulsively drew on coffee shop napkins in pen. These compositions are still today included in Barry McGee’s exhibitions; they’re also at the origin of his drawings of faces with hairy reflections, based on a haunting homeless man with a peculiar hairstyle and beard he crossed paths with. If Barry McGee’s studio brings to mind bulk-waste warehouses, it’s because he’s keenly collected, with his brother, everything from comics7 to empty beer bottles. An era shaped by Hanna-Barbera Productions’ animated films and by Basil Wolverton’s grotesque caricatures, they remain a lifeline in certain of the artist’s cartoonish forms.

Painting-collision. Ever since the miracle of cave art, man has been a natural graffiti artist, driven by the “feeling of the forbidden”8 as described by Georges Bataille. In the Capitalocene era, bisons and handprints have mutated into cryptic pseudonyms, pigments diffused as pressurizing spray paint, the threat of bears replaced by dog handlers. Be it in darkened streets or neon-lit white cubes, Barry McGee’s painting is a territory of collision. Between emergence and destruction, his deconstructed painting is part of what one could call “the buff aesthetic”9, which recalls what Bataille wrote about old nyctalopic paintings: “(their meaning) is conveyed via their manifestation, not in the lasting thing that remains after the manifestation.

This tension is evident in his 2001 project Demolition Derby Performance10, a sulfurous rodeo of car-paintings lain to rest by the artist in an open-air parking lot in Shibuya.

In the summer of 2016, during a discussion with his former partner-incrime Craig Costello, Barry McGee asserted that: “the basic form and method of writing one’s name upon different surfaces still holds the most allure for us. Fine art could never reach quite the same excitement level and interest.” In July 2021, when I asked him what he saw in letters, he replied, “I’ve always liked letters in graffiti. I don’t know how to describe this feeling and this attraction. For that matter, I don’t know how to explain what I’m doing or why I’m doing it when I’m drawing letters automatically. There is no reason, but I do it... yet it’s not without reason: it’s like learning a language that you will never be able to master.” He added: “What I love about graffiti is that no one knows who I am. It’s the feeling of pure freedom. I just have to change my name, and nobody cares about my tag. Graffiti is the only thing I can do without anyone appropriating it.” The other identities he often incorporates in his exhibitions include: Ray Fong, Lydia Fong, P.Kin, Ray Virgil, B. Vernon.

This link to graffiti and this mistrust of the art world were at the heart of the new underground wave in San Francisco’s art scene in the early 1990s. Headquartered in the Mission District, it was considered a disadvantaged neighborhood, with a mostly Hispanic population. This is where the “Mission School”11 —so-called retroactively—was born. The collective of five artists (Barry McGee, Ruby Neri, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Chris Johanson) evolved in a neighborhood torn between poverty and Silicon Valley’s emerging digital revolution, which soon marked a new Californian economic golden age. Following a route Jack London once took, and later the Beatniks, this collective of libertarian and anti-capitalist artists occasionally frequented the San Francisco Art Institute and several Californian alternative scene laboratories12 that involved listening to punk music, exchanging self-published fanzines, hosting Act Up meetings or Food Not Bombs activists.

These five artists drew on the precariousness of reality, recycling marginalized or abandoned forms. They were equally influenced by the works of Ann Hamilton, the legacy of the San Francisco scene (notably Nathan Oliveira), the political paintings of Philip Guston, as much as by surf culture, skate culture, sign paintings, so-called folk or popular art, ‘lowbrow’ painting. For these artists, painting was vagabond writing, like monikers13, those drawings of hobos using oil sticks amidst machinery and scrap metal freight trains. ‘Poor’ painting opened up new perspectives, those of railway lines crisscrossing landscapes.

Thirty years later, it’s an era of hand-to-hand combat: crushed, suffocated, abused, exhausted, contaminated, exploited bodies, indignant in the face of inequalities. “DO YOUR PART FOR THE RESISTANCE”: in 2018, Barry McGee exhibited this slogan, using black spray, citing a San Francisco activist, accompanied by the antifa logo.

During a dialogue with Ken Loach14, writer Edouard Louis questions what the aesthetic of confrontation could be. According to him, our era isn’t about highlighting inequalities, but confronting them. He adds: “I think a form of mistrust of art should always be maintained. […] In truth, the history of art is the history of controversy within art, and that’s how things progress. […] Art is created as a form of anger against art, and not when it serves as an instrument of reflexive contentment for the dominant classes.” Barry McGee’s anger is faint but continues. A calm anger, expressed in black and red within the artist’s paintings. A painting practice which, failing to reverse the system15, propagates itself like termites do, gnawing away at structures of domination. Such is Barry McGee’s painting: a silent bite mark that incites other ones.

--Hugo Vitrani

1. Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace, Repenser radicalement l’espace urbain, ed. Manuels Payot, 2010

2. See Cara Chellew’s Defending Suburbia: Exploring the Use of Defensive Urban Design Outside of the City Centre, CJUR (Revue Canadienne de Recherche Urbaine), Summer 2019

3. The broken window theory became popular after an article by JQ Wilson and GL Kelling was published in 1996. The criminal policies of Tolerance 0, on the origins of insecurity, stemmed from this theory. See Sébastien Roché’s La théorie de la “Vitre cassée” en France, Incivilité et désordres, Revue Française de Science Politiques, 2000

4. An installation presented during the exhibition “Wall Power”, held at the ICA in Philadelphia in 2000, which ques-tioned the artistic, political and social impact of murals in Philadelphia. Bringing together Barry McGee, Stephen Powers and Todd James, the trio changed the history of post-graffiti, helping transition the medium from the streets to an institutional context. This prefigured the iconic exhibition “Street Market,” presented at Deitch Projects (NY, 2000), Parco Gallery (Tokyo, 2000), the 49th Venice Biennale (2001) and the MoCA (Los Angeles, 2011)

5. Barry McGee’s installations, particularly The Boil, are inspired by a Catholic church in São Cristóvão the artist visited during an eight-month stay in Brazil in 1993. He noted: “I am definitely not religious, I consider myself more an antichrist. But there is indeed a lot of devotion in graffiti, and a state of sacrifice. That church has the most beauti-ful energy in motion that I have ever seen. There wasn’t enough space to accommodate the drawings, votive offer-ings, or photos people left, so all this material spread organically on the walls, in layers. The religious aspect of this context didn’t interest me whatsoever, but the dynamic of constrained space fascinated me. It seemed magical.” It was during this trip that he met and influenced the work of OSGEMEOS, a duo of Brazilian painters.

6. Assorted blazes and crew names include: META, DFW, THR, PANDA, VLOK, ADEK, AMAZE, CHINO, NEMEL, OKER, DASH SNOW, SEO, TIE ONE, IZ THE WIZ, PSYCKOZE, STAK, DACYA, HONET, O’CLOCK, RCF1, HORFEE, TOAM… Letters following one another, like sign paintings done with a brush, or amplified by the use of fat caps or tampered fire extinguishers

7. Specifically: DC comics, ZAP comics and Love and Rockets by the Hernandez brothers

8. Georges Bataille, Lascaux ou la naissance de l’art, ed. Skira, 1955

9. In graffiti circles, the term “buff” is used to indicate the erasure of graffiti carried out by individuals or by the State. Covering the graffiti with flat areas of paint results in new abstract compositions that inspired many artists, including early works by Stephen Powers and those of SKKi ©, SAEIO and David Ostrowski

10. A performance that brought together Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, Ed Templeton and Josh Lozcano, filmed by director Cheryl Dunn:

11. Regarding this new artistic scene, Renny Pritikin evoked “Urban Rustics / Digital Bohemians,” while Eungie Joo saw “the New Folk.” The term “Mission School” stems from an article by Glen Helfand “The Mission School, San Francisco’s Street Artist Delivers Their Neighborhood to the Art World,” published in 2002

12. Venues included Luggage Store, Capp Street Project, Southern Exposure

13. “Monikers» are an old tradition; the expression comes from Jack London, author of The Road in 1907, who referred to “monicas.» See Bill Daniel’s documentary on the enigmatic Bozo Texino, an iconic figure of this practice:

14. In Dialogue sur l’art et la politique, Edouard Louis, Ken Loach, ed. Puf, Des mots collection, 2021

15. When he was young, Barry McGee was very influenced by communist political graffiti. He has long used the slogan “SMASH THE SYSTEM” in exhibitions, to circulate this graffiti, written in public space, in a different way

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