Barry McGee is internationally known and one of San Francisco's own. He's an artist we love to brag about, and many of us are admittedly influenced by his style. His appearances are ambitious, rare, and spread out so widely across the world that a local retrospective is an enormous blessing -- an opportunity to see the best of over thirty years of his artwork and exhibits in one place.
The Berkeley Art Museum has aggressive, concrete architecture not unlike a parking structure, which is fitting since McGee installed a signature wrecked vehicle, an overstocked bodega, and a TV tower, among other face-melting installations. It's not a big show at Deitch Projects, or a museum installation, or a bunch of Internet photos. This well-earned retrospective is a chance to truly feel the heart and the history of McGee's life and career.
The work represents everything about the artist. These are the things he's collected, painted, lettered, sorted, and kept close. This is his life. This is what he's obsessed with and where he finds beauty and importance. Nothing is insignificant. Ziplock baggies full of drawings are just as important as ceramic sculptures. McGee's friends and family are represented in vitrines of art and ephemera contributed by his crew. Everything represents his interests in community, street culture, objects with history, and life's contrasts. Everything is on the table. To some it's chaotic, but there are clear formal concerns that are realized in a style that has felt exciting forever.
The artist's scholarly documentation of graffiti in the days before it was commodified to death is an important part of the show. There is evidence of time spent painting in the train yards and bombing the streets. McGee uses everything he can get his hands on as installation materials and canvases: printmaking trays, surfboards, spray cans, reclaimed wood, vehicles, books, buildings, and broken VCRs. He has a magical capacity for making damaged and discarded objects desirable again.
Legions of young artists owe a debt to McGee. His influence is constant like a heartbeat. When it comes to life, art, and objects, maybe it's true that "you can't take it with you," but McGee's legacy thus far proves that you can leave a bright, shining mark on the world, and the scale is up to you. And while anyone's life experiences and loves could be translated into an enormous museum show, nobody could ever do it quite like Barry McGee.