THE SIDEWALKS surrounding the Berkeley Art Museum last Thursday were filled with dazed and eager newbie scholars who brazenly streamed through crosswalks, taunting drivers on the first day of classes at Cal. It also happened to be the opening of Barry McGee’s rollicking home-turf midcareer survey at the BAM. McGee and his street-inflected artwork have always had an ambivalent relationship with authority, and it was a fitting and yet somehow awkward merging of events. The university is a zone of both youthful energy and bureaucratic entanglements: During the opening, there were reports of campus police having hassled the artist late the previous night as he tagged the outside of the museum with the word SNITCH. Officials intervened and the paint kept spraying.
Heavy metal played at a subdued volume in the massive, open-plan museum, but the vibe was calm and respectful, not wild or iconoclastic. More youth culture than art-worldly. The pervasive sangfroid had something to do with the fact that the sun hadn’t set and the bars were outside on the patio. The beer (microbrew kegger, fittingly) ran out quickly. Wonderfully fragrant marijuana clouds wafted over the crowd with regularity. There was a burst of excitement, a rock star moment, when the notoriously shy artist made his way to the patio. He was immediately crushed by fans, one brandishing a bike frame with McGee graphics. The rest clutched cell phones with which they captured the moment. The artist amiably signed the bike.
To cope with his ambivalence about being contained in a museum, McGee brings the outside in. The show’s centerpiece is a stage set with scenes of gritty urbanity, complete with animatronic taggers. A collaborative version in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’s “Art in the Streets” exhibition was dense and dark. The Berkeley version—a towering, painting-encrusted faux storefront in BAM’s massive Brutalist atrium—seems more plazalike, with plenty of open space to stroll. Throngs of fans comfortably mingled around the work. MoCA director and McGee champion Jeffrey Deitch was probably the most notable figure besides the artist, and he was spotted ambling through the crowd with a slight limp. The music grew louder as dusk settled into evening. The Filth Mongers, a band comprising anonymous McGee pals (many of whom helped in the months-long install), performed a set wearing paper bags on their heads.
The show’s objects exude a kind of accessibility and vulnerability. Many of them are displayed casually, outside of vitrines, under the gentle watch of work-study attendants. In a mezzanine gallery, curator and BAM/PFA director Larry Rinder told me that the show was “a moment of reflection, of where we are, and where we are going.” Before I could fully process that, lanky Berkeley-based performance artist Philip Huang knelt on the floor in devotional pose and began a seemingly guerrilla (but actually sanctioned) performance that involved cross-dressing, a large stuffed animal, and a neti pot, which the artist used to rinse his nostrils, letting the water rinse his bare foot. The puerile gross-out factor was effective enough, though its relationship to McGee’s work was tenuous. “They said I could do whatever I wanted,” Huang told me. The DJ picked up from there.
Things were quieter and notably more adult at the afterparty at Pizzaiolo in Oakland. The entire restaurant was booked by Ratio 3, McGee’s SF gallery, and guests were plied with primo Italian nibbles and California reds. Deitch sequestered himself in a booth (and admitted he was looking forward to a public conversation with Rinder on McGee’s work, though MoCA’s controversies seemed off the table), while Adam Sheffer of Cheim and Reid, which just picked up the artist, chatted with collectors. A few of us played genteel games of bocce ball on the patio, while McGee kept a low profile, visiting friends, seeming to enjoy the calm. They sent us home with McGee tote bags, while the restaurant offered its remaining loaves of the day’s house-baked bread. Like the exhibition we celebrated, it was a hearty gesture, which we happily accepted.