Barry McGee

A longtime graffiti artist who’s supplemented his street smarts with a BFA, San Franciscan Barry McGee is one of the latest in a long line to percolate from the underground into the sanctioned halls of high art. Transforming the despised into the desirable, bringing the romance of the urban outlaw indoors, he was given free rein in the Walker Art Center’s Gallery 7 for his first solo museum exhibition.

The untitled installation (1998) comprised numerous parts, one of which, directly adjacent to the gallery entry, emphasized the illicit aspect of McGee’s art. Dozens of spent spray cans were arranged in a shrinelike pile next to a display of the tools of the graffiti trade: bolt cutters, specially rigged cans, and a customized overcoat with pockets for cans and markers. A halo of wishbones hung over the coat like a good-luck talisman; nearby were small cards with inane messages on the order of “`Graffiti gangs’ are a bunch of bozos. That’s why they wear clown pants.” There was also a “found object” (or purloined sign?) requesting “To all Taggers: Please do NOT mark on this truck, and do NOT remove this sign. Thank you.” Meanwhile, most of the more traditional artwork in this section, paintings featuring McGee’s signature cartoonish, sad-sack faces, were scattered on the floor in a distinctly secondary role.

If that piece was intended to educate the public while also asserting McGee’s street cred, then the huge mural running along two walls of the gallery demonstrated his skills as an artist sans the “graffiti” qualifier. Standing out against a blood-red background were more faces, mostly disembodied and virtually all belonging to men, the weight of their struggles evident in their droopy jowls and heavy-lidded eyes. Parts of the composition mimicked graffiti’s continual cycles of action and erasure, with tags partly blotted out by white paint then layered with elements from McGee’s iconography, including liquor bottles, some with tiny men trapped inside, and curious forms like moon rocks and loopy tree branches as drawn by Dr. Seuss. Graffiti’s energetic swoops and pneumatic lettering contrasted with a number of other writing styles: elegant, upper-crust script; simple, bathroom-wall scrawl; and a knockout log-letter rendering of the word “mystified.”

This screen of floating signs and symbols could be read as McGee’s secret code of city life or as a temporal monument to weariness, resignation, and alienation—to those whose existence is barely eked out. The only sign of agency, in fact, was a white silhouette of a running figure on the back wall. There, the mural ran up against a collection of liquor bottles painted with still more heads: a whole neighborhood’s worth of goofs, scammers, stooges, and the walking wounded. Rounding out the installation was a combination scrapbook/sketchbook/photo album of urban flotsam, with the images mounted in thrift-store frames and hung cheek by jowl.

Despite its distinctly downer vibe, McGee’s work has a paradoxical yet undeniable vibrancy, a sense of someone who’s found his calling in scavenging, documenting, and bearing witness to the urban wild. This mission prevents him from becoming a fully domesticated artist, which simultaneously makes him (like past graffiti artists) all the more alluring in high-cultural circles. It’s a balancing act that has its share of ironies: the Walker, as law-abiding art institution, indirectly condoning criminal behavior; McGee, as master of “defacement,” carefully painting around a donor’s plaque in the gallery.

Julie Caniglia