Thursday, August 30, 2012

All Around the World: Barry McGee, Escaping Into the City

Barry McGee---The World Beyond the Wall
Berkeley Art Museum
August 24, 2012- December 9, 2012

Asheley Gao

            When all the artists are trying to push their artworks into the museums, Barry McGee only wants to get them out. His art starts from the corner of the gallery, slowly crawls across the wall, fills the ceiling, oozes out of the window and stretches onto the exterior facade of the museum, ever expanding. Frames, bottles, spray paint, and cubes keep unfolding on themselves on the wall until they fill in every single blank and defy all the spatial boundaries, as if trying to find that one crack on the wall that will set them free and lead them home, home to the noisy street corners where they belong.

            Barry McGee, born, raised and trained in San Francisco, knows every nook and cranny of the city. His heart belongs to the empty walls, trash valleys, spiked fences and neon lights of the Mission district, spray-painting his passion, obsession and addiction to the heart and soul of San Francisco. The district, with a deep Latino root, encompasses various subcultures which inspire mural masters like Diego Rivera to add their own color to the cityscape. Barry McGee celebrates this eclecticism while criticizes the downside of capitalism prosperity brought to the neighborhood by the dot-com bubble. The people who have lost their jobs, homes and dreams roam the streets in the Mission, finding their reflection in McGee’s murals, graffiti, and even empty beer bottle installations. Deep-set eyes, hollow cheekbones and twisted eyebrows are all captured and exaggerated in McGee’s simple and fluid outlines, constantly reminding the audience of their surroundings, that their existence in a broader context.
            This reminder could not be stronger when the Berkeley Art Museum welcomes Barry McGee with enclosed walls and low ceilings for his art. In a museum with a concrete window-less facade, McGee’s art seems to be shrouded and guarded by layers and layers of cement, as if a piece of jewelry in a giant safe. As his installations overflows from the first floor gallery to the bottom floor atrium, a 7,000-square-foot open space with elongated glass panels, they momentarily break free from the confinement of gallery walls and breathe in the light. A compilation of old televisions, stacking on top of one another, flash vibrant colors and his signature op-art painted geometric patterns; another pile of panels, reflecting similar motif but static, create a waterfall of colors that lands on a dilapidated brick house. The house carries much of McGee’s retro business signs and color blocks which are heavily influenced by pop art. The solid grey walls of the atrium provide a perfect backdrop for McGee’s colors as well as smoothing out the transformation of the atrium to a street corner in San Francisco.
            The transformation, however, could never be completed, and it was never meant to be. McGee’s art is made with contradiction, bold colors against stern gray interior, bulging liquor bottles against flat gallery walls, and most importantly, street art against museum art. McGee’s art is born on the streets and live for the streets; it breathes in the urban air and breathes out the exhaustion with unruly vitality. Therefore when uprooted and preserved in a treasure box, the art seems so out of place. Even the spray painted door and the bold red “SNITCH” on the museum exterior cannot imitate the spirit of vandalism and rebellion (the SNITCH is not even on the wall.It is spray painted on a giant piece of plastic wrap on the surface of the wall, for protection). McGee’s art belongs to the world beyond the wall, the world that cannot be protected, plastic-wrapped and preserved. 

 The Culture Columnist, Asheley Gao:

My name is Asheley Gao and I’m a junior at Cal, majoring in History of Art and minoring in French. I grew up in Asia, the land of dragons and jasmine green tea, as a kid with too much imagination. Indulging myself in exploring different cultures and what they have to offer (art, movies, cuisine, you name it!), I’m on my way to becoming a woman whose country is the whole world. Along with all the excellent writers at Unleashed, I would love to share with you my adventure and take you all around the world.

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