PRINT April 2008


View of Barry McGee, “Metropolitan Meat Market,” 2004, John Kaldor Art Projects, Melbourne, Australia.

NOT QUITE A BLACK MARKET, but rather shaded in gray, new circuits of distribution and exchange continually flow outside the art world’s usual trade routes—and nothing seems to have traversed these channels more nimbly than the work of San Francisco–based artist Barry McGee. His pieces may begin on car doors or in train stations, galleries or museums. But they have made their way to eBay (inciting international bidding wars), alternative exhibition spaces, and skate shops; they have been regularly stolen, traded, destroyed, and faked. And, of course, they have had feature turns at art fairs and auction houses. McGee’s is a body of work that confounds any shopworn dualism between the street and the evening sale. With gentle agility, it infiltrates both—and beyond.

McGee began writing graffiti as “Twist” in the Bay Area in 1985. His tags were quick, clandestine, and subject to overpainting and police cleaning crews. By the early 1990s, when he graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute and Twist had achieved widespread notoriety, his scripted monikers appeared outdoors alongside achingly delicate renderings of down-and-out men and scenes of dereliction. Such elaborate but ephemeral gestures translated readily into murals and site-specific installations. As the artist began to work off the wall and with painted panels, prints, drawings, cans of spray paint, liquor bottles, stickers, upturned trucks, and eventually video and kinetic sculpture, these installation components entered into a dizzying afterlife.

The panels circulated almost immediately. When McGee executed a series of murals on a construction fence for San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 1992, the work met an unforeseen fate. As Bennett Roberts of the Los Angeles gallery Roberts & Tilton (one of the dealers currently representing McGee) remembers, “There were sixty panels. Afterward, he just gave Yerba Buena all of them, but they cut them up and auctioned different elements. They were selling for $3,000 to $30,000 apiece.” Moving swiftly from a gift economy to a monetary one, the demand for the panels signaled fluidity between vastly diverse spheres of interest. The fervor of skate kids and the logomania of sneaker freaks met the tastes of public-art audiences and private collectors. Apparently, the street market had legs. Art institutions and galleries likewise hit their stride. McGee produced his first significant indoor works in 1993 at the Luggage Store, a nonprofit venue in San Francisco. Famously showing with Aaron Rose’s Alleged Gallery in New York in the mid- to late 1990s, the artist also featured in solo exhibitions at Yerba Buena (1994), the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (1998), the Rice University Art Gallery in Houston (1999), Deitch Projects in New York (1999), and LA’s Hammer Museum (2000).

McGee’s works hit eBay around 2001, well before they materialized at major auction houses. The artist’s diminutive painted liquor bottles, generally shown in groups as part of larger installations, began to sell on the online auction site at higher prices than dealers were getting for similar items. By 2003, winning bids on eBay had soared to $1,500 per bottle, whereas dealer prices hovered around $900. That same year, Untitled, 2000, a bottle installation, appeared at Christie’s and set a record for the artist at $113,525 (against an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000). “There have been a significant number of [McGee’s] works sold by myself and my competition in the auction world,” says Andrew Massad, senior vice president for postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, “but my sense is that the far greater segment of McGee’s sales have been private.”

McGee’s exhibition record has kept pace with this market ascendancy in all sectors, with appearances at Dakis Joannou’s Deste Foundation in Athens (2001 and 2004) and the Fondazione Prada in Milan (2002). All this would seem to point to a larger market surrounding McGee (and artists from the graffiti, skate, and graphic-design worlds) that has appreciated enormously, been lauded as a new species of futures trading, and expanded into an explosive multiples sector. To some, this is simply an instance of ever-increasing co-optation by the tentacles of the culture industry. But the case of McGee is far more intricate and ambivalent. In fact, his emphasis on process and trace—from the daredevil physicality of tagging to the painstakingly carpal strokes of illustration—seems echoed by the unfolding of the work’s contingent fortunes.

Just as his works course through networks of display and exchange that circumvent normal transactions, the artist begins with a near-Cagean openness. He maintains his more illicit engagements while working informally with a group of dealers (rather than with just one or two), as well as with nonprofit and public spaces, seeming to appreciate the risk that the work can end up on eBay, in an abandoned building, or at Art Basel. As McGee says, “I like that something could potentially sell anywhere, at any given place. For better or worse, I used to like that chaotic nature of it, too. Someone could buy it from me, or on a street corner, or from Jeffrey [Deitch], or someone else.” That kind of expansive traffic “challenges the order of the art market,” says Deitch.

Countless other pieces have experienced another kind of ecology altogether. Many of the empty liquor bottles were themselves bought by the artist for a dollar from alcoholics on the street. McGee paints tenderly detailed faces on the glass, quasi-portraits of the flasks’ former owners—a form of give-and-take that is moving before it is mercantile. And when the bottles have appeared in exhibitions, they have been infamous targets of theft. At his solo show at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum in 2004, McGee recounts, “there was a major heist there—thirty-nine bottles were stolen over the period. But no one figured it out until the end of the show. I thought it was really funny. At every venue I have that kind of experience.” Even more audacious, a sixty-four-foot-long public mural commission that McGee painted on Howard Street in San Francisco in 1998 was stolen the next year and never recovered. In January of this year, large-scale ceramic panels that the artist had constructed in 1995 were boldly cut and lifted from a Muni station in the city. As McGee says with some admiration, “There’s a whole range of sophistication to thievery, too.”

In contrast to this frenzied and illicit acquisition, much of McGee’s work is treated as detritus, only to resurface. He often discards large components of his sprawling installations, returning them to the junkyards whence they came. On occasion, however, elements that were intended to be impermanent have bubbled up into the market instead, collapsing the fleeting and the reified. Both kinds of loot—the stolen and the recouped—have turned up on eBay. Not surprisingly, so has a great deal of forgery. Counterfeit bottles, drawings, paintings, stickers signed “Twist”—all have appeared on the website and may occasionally surface in small galleries. While Roberts and others will forward McGee suspected fakes, the artist is generally sanguine: “I completely stayed out of it—I thought they were so obvious.”

McGee’s laborious handicraft does not preclude multiples, which the artist has dabbled in sporadically. Series of hairnets (for Giant Robot), sneakers (for Adidas), and plastic figurines (for Tokion) have all become coveted collectibles. These pieces form an unexpected relationship with the fallout from otherwise transient and unwieldy installation work. As Roberts observes, “With his massive installations, like at Deitch, he will push it so far that commercialization can’t happen. But that’s exactly why after the installation, everyone wants something—if there is anything—even something small left over.” (“The art world is so strange now,” Roberts adds, “that we’ll find our Artforum ads on sale on eBay for a hundred dollars as ‘offset prints.’ The interest in art is deeper than it’s ever been.”)

Unlike the self-conscious trade—and bankruptcy—of Julieta Aranda, Liz Linden, and Anton Vidokle’s Pawnshop in New York, the outcome of McGee’s project is not scripted, the peculiar paths his works follow not canny nods to institutional critique. And unlike the prankster Banksy—who, to be sure, finds his work moving in similar circles of transience, theft, forgery, and acquisition—McGee is not a provocateur. Rather, as much as it leaves a trace, his “open work” is also a form of loss. As McGee says, “It’s about being able to let it go once it’s out of my hands.”

Michelle Kuo is a senior editor of Artforum.