There’s probably no place, besides the city streets, more appropriate for a Barry McGee showcase than the Berkeley Art Museum. With its towering concrete levels and labyrinthine structure, BAM is impressive, flexible and ultimately urban in its aesthetic. Coincidentally, San Francisco-based artist Barry McGee’s work embodies all those characteristics and, for the first time, a comprehensive collection of his art can be seen in Berkeley Art Museum’s newest exhibit.
If you happen to be walking down Bancroft, you may notice something different about the exterior of BAM. In majestic and vibrant red paint, the word “SNITCH” adorns the rather drab, though massive, gray wall outside the museum. When you reach the doors, they’re changed as well — completely obscured in McGee’s striking graffiti lettering. Once inside, vivid hues of checked pinks, yellows, oranges and all other matter of color illuminate the museum’s somber halls, transforming them into a visual carnival complete with an over-the-top full-size van parked in the middle of the ground floor. Attached to the top of the van are stunning, mechanical models of graffiti artists that could easily stand in for McGee himself.
Born in 1966, McGee grew up amid the bustling and often troubled streets of The City. After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1991, McGee’s urban-style art — centered on rusted paint cans, long-faced city characters and chaotic collages — rose in prominence. By the late ’90s and early 2000s, his provocative pop art could be seen in exhibit halls from New York City to Berlin. Now, McGee returns to the Bay Area for a display that not only encapsulates his bitter sense of humor, but also his dynamic abilities as an artist and his complex ideas surrounding urban lifestyles.
Like I mentioned earlier, at first, you’re immediately hit with color. It’s brilliant, bewildering and almost blinding the minute you walk in. Framed portraits of hooded taggers grace the walls alongside pointed caricatures of cartoonish men whose eyes droop with immense sadness. It’s utterly transfixing but also paradoxical, for bright and youthful colors are juxtaposed right alongside the decay of rusted plates and crushed paint cans. McGee, who has used the vast space of the Berkeley Art Museum to his advantage, places these objects and pictures right in your face, your walking path, and what emerges is a three-dimensional portrait of the modern lifestyle — its high-points and low-points.
On the ground floor is a full-scale mom-and-pop shop titled “Fong’s 99¢ Store” (note: Fong is one of the main monikers McGee uses). Everything and the kitchen sink surrounds this archetypal city structure — records, books, fence posts, surfboards, any scraps you could imagine. Just off to the side, a mountainous column of television sets soars towards the ceiling — all aglow with flashing screens of cartoons, vintage footage and other art pieces. Like the rest of the show, it’s a topsy-turvy pastiche that hypnotizes as well as confuses.
And this is the bottom line of Barry McGee’s show. His exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum showcases his dexterous abilities as both a street artist, capable of raw, potent emotion and a more refined social commentator. On one of the upper levels of the museum, a wooden sculpture of a man’s head is hooked up to a somewhat rudimentary hydraulic system. It’s an elaborate art piece with a simple maneuver. In a rote and mechanical manner, the head beats its forehead against the white wall of the gallery over and over and over again, ad infinitum. Like the van, the TV sets, the wild images and the collages, McGee’s sculpture is both intriguing and puzzling — revealing the simultaneous decay, disorder and stunning vitality of the world around us.