Barry McGee at the ICA Boston

Barry McGee’s recent retrospective highlights a common dilemma in the rising popularity of bringing street art into museums and galleries—namely, how do you capture the ephemeral nature of the work and evoke its urban context in a white cube, and how does the message of the artwork change? The ICA show sought to confront these dilemmas, and the result was a show that revealed itself as an environment more than simply a survey. Replete with floor-to-ceiling wall installations, animatronic sculptures, and a massive totem of 130 television screens, the show drew heavily on McGee’s Bay Area roots and graffiti aesthetic. - Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contibutor (Visiting Boston!)

Barry McGee, Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

The show opened with one of McGee’s signature collages, an amalgamate installation of found frames cascading from a corner in the gallery. Each is filled with a small drawing or painting of the artist’s, creating a kind of sampler of his signature aesthetic, and a visual primer for the remainder of the exhibition. Displayed beside were are a row of paint cans, bolt cutters, and a paint-stained jacket, hung to reveal interior pockets for the artist’s tools. These too become introductory elements to understanding McGee’s history as a street artist and the origins of his unofficial practice.

 

Moving into the next galleries, viewers were confronted with a full wall of tiled metal in various states of rust and corrosion. The wall was actually made up of metal trays that were once used for letterpress printing, a material that recalls the exterior of train cars, a popular surface for graffiti. The choice of letterpress trays also references the history of printing text, and the way in which graffiti artists have subverted a medium traditionally associated with clean linearity and draftsmanship.

Beyond this wall visitors encountered the first of the exhibition’s animatronic sculptures—a hoodied figure balanced precariously on a trash can, and made to look as if tagging the back wall. Visually deceptive, the object’s status as a robot is not immediately apparent, at once implying the artist’s presence and the idea that every surface is fair game—even those within his own exhibition.

Paintings by Margaret Kilgallen inside a structure painted by Barry McGee

Throughout the space large dumpsters had been hollowed out to create smaller free-standing galleries. One was filled with drawings by the artist’s late wife and fellow artist Margaret Kilgallen. Shown surrounded by McGee’s work, their aesthetics are immediately recognized as aligned yet distinct, as her lines ventured more towards a coiling, naturalistic quality.

 

Untitled, 2005/2012, Mixed Media, Courtesy of Deitch Archive, New York

Friends and fellow graffiti crew members are also evoked in other pieces. A life-size diorama of a figure tagging a bathroom mirror is an homage to longtime collaborator Josh Lazcano, and the consistent use of DFW, CBT, and THR also reference graffiti crews with which McGee was affiliated. In addition, his own aliases—R. Fong, L. Fong, and Twist, among others—make constant appearances. McGee speaks of the aliases as a way of maintaining anonymity, as well as a way for constant reinvention, as he sometimes wants to distance himself from the visual “baggage” associated with a previously-used moniker.

The transient nature of McGee’s work is also referenced in what become the show’s “moving parts.” In addition to the animatronic sculptures, the tower of television screens is a kind of moving collage, each screen flashing a different looped scene, either associated with street culture or inexplicable scenes from found footage. McGee also dislikes installing works in the same way more than once, making each constellation of frames, screens, or graphic images a singular and ephemeral installation.

Although the roots of graffiti art originated years ago—a nostalgic element that is inherent in the exhibition—its message and function as social criticism is still salient, a factor that the last gallery of the exhibition makes clear. In a series of vitrines, this part of the show was modeled on the idea of a community center, and in which Boston artists were invited to share objects and ephemera from their own collections. This aspect highlights the collaborative and participatory qualities of street art, and also evidence its enduring existence and importance in communities today.

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In 1991, Barry McGee (b. 1966, San Francisco) graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute, where he studied painting and printmaking. His drawings, paintings, sculptures, and installations have been exhibited at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. This midcareer survey was organized by the UC Berkeley Art Museum, where it was shown before traveling to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

Nadiah Fellah is a graduate student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.

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