By: Madeline Walsh
April 28, 2014
They say fame changes you.
The task of catering to a newfound popularity with a steady moral compass has split many artists in two. For street artists who call the gallery their second home, reconciling the opposing spheres of their career is something they constantly consider. How do you combine your past with your present when you move your work in from outdoors? San Francisco-grown Barry McGee exemplifies this struggle in his current creative process.
A graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, Barry McGee began his career as a graffiti artist in the 1980s and member of the Mission School art movement in the early 1990s. Named after it’s home base, San Francisco’s Mission District, the movement focused primarily on folk and urban themes. These aesthetic features correlated with both the Mission’s street culture and the popular art world’s larger “lowbrow” movement.
Early in his career, McGee went by many monikers including: Twist, Fong, R. Pimple and Bernon Vernon (to name a few). But nowadays, he seems to be juggling entirely different aesthetics rather than just tags. In Vanity Fair and Cadillac’s joint production, “Art in the Streets,” Adam Sheffer of Cheim & Read Gallery says McGee is “an artist for everybody.” But with McGee’s transition to curated spaces, how has that idea of “everybody” changed? Is his art really for everybody or every body that is welcome into galleries and can afford museum admission?
McGee’s Street persona is a gritty, rugged, reflection of San Francisco’s equally rough streets. His images, frequently found on empty bottles or coupled with scrap heaps, depict modern people’s inherent suffering. Many of McGee’s droopy-eyed characters represent a downtrodden, urban population cast out by mainstream society. McGee’s Gallery self, on the other hand, shifts the focus to mash-ups of geometric shapes, words, and wall clusters. While these collages bring in elements of McGee’s former street career, it is certainly more uplifting and refined.
Yet, McGee’s work has not lost all of its urban fire. The artist frequently introduces ideas of the “outside” or “outside materials” to gallery spaces in multiple ways. A lot of his recent work demonstrates this idea by defying canvas boundaries, with paintings that literally spill out out of their frames. Other times, his exhibits include found-object sculptures and dismantled cars from city streets. In a 2004 exhibition for Australia’s Kaldor Public Art Projects, McGee physically recreates an outside space indoors. As seen in “The Stars Were Aligned…,” McGee has constructed a sidewalk and an entryway shaped like an outdoor garage. Bringing the “outside” in, may be McGee’s way of methodically reconciling the two sides of his creative legacy. This fracture and reassemblage of cultural boundaries may eventually eliminate the idea of these two separate worlds.
McGee’s different flavors of art may not necessarily be of unequal value. In fact, the real art may lie in McGee’s balancing act of work in and outside the gallery. Although McGee continues to make notable creative contributions, are his indoor works helping end the graffiti world that got him started? Is McGee’s visual switch in identity just an indicator of how environment impacts expression? Or does his evolution point to the fact that people grow and change? How much of this change has been spurred by fame? This type of conflict is an ordinary human struggle that informs our history, literature and art. In our everyday lives we juggle identities, such as our private and work selves. While we adhere to cultural constructs, how much of our integrity is compromised by our “inside” and “outside” manners?
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