Barry McGee

You had to pass through the body of an overturned truck to get into Barry McGee’s exhibition, and you then found yourself immersed in a sort of global urban periphery, the terrain in which this young California artist and his imagination operate. It was like crossing to the other side of a mirror, not to a world in reverse but simply one you’d rather not see. Yet this unpleasant parallel universe harbors its own expressive rules and creative and interpretive capacities; and despite the encompassing social entropy, fires of revolt (not revolution) flare up every now and then.

McGee’s roots are in the graffiti movement, which began in the early ’80s as a way for young disenfranchised artists to affirm their very existence. Their small cry of defiance, a gesture of healthy anarchy, multiplied into millions of tags splashed across the walls of cities around the world and has today perhaps degenerated into an academic ersatz of rebellion. Once the novelty of graffiti wore off, there was a natural exhaustion of the phenomenon, but certain examples could be absorbed into official culture, appreciated and exhibited in museums, “valued” and sold at auction. This decontextualization of graffiti art—the shift from alleyways to galleries—even produced a few art stars, like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat; but the majority of practitioners were left to languish in the obscurity of the art world’s margins. Putting up an exhibition of work by an artist like McGee at the Fondazione Prada is symptomatic of what cultural, economic, and political establishments can do to contain an expressive force that is pretty much spent but may still have subversive potential. Once again such work has become valued for its novelty, and even its quality, but not its social meaning.

That duly noted, it should be said that McGee bears up very well under this decontextualization because he manages to transform the exhibition space into a stage. He constructs a spatial metaphor for his personal and social reality and represents the world from which his images come, turning the art viewers into actors in an environment. At the Fondazione Prada he created a gigantic, perfectly orchestrated theatrical installation with numerous “stations” and a multitude of narratives. A second semidestroyed vehicle (this time a van) was transformed into a makeshift shack housing a series of drawings done by the artist’s father. Opposite, a small plasterboard hut held drawings by McGee’s wife. The entire grouping was connected by red walls on which, like ex-votos, hung myriad sketches, jottings, and notes, as well as photographs of McGee himself as a child—a labyrinth of images and sensations, almost all emerging from the life of the streets. It is a context that evokes the entire phenomenon of social marginalization and its artistic and literary expression from Faulkner to the Beat generation and beyond. But a sour note rings out in the form of the often repeated image of a face, which functions for McGee as a sort of latter-day “tag”: a character young but already resigned, too unintelligent or unaggressive or perhaps simply too ugly to be able to escape the slums—unlike the artist himself.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore