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Art review

Barry McGee exhibit traces his vibrant visions as a graffiti artist

Barry McGee’s “Untitled (Crawling Man),’’ from the artist’s exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art. TOM POWEL IMAGING

Barry McGee looks like an artist falling, in slow motion, between stools. It’s a compelling spectacle. Suspenseful, too. Above all, you want to know: Is there a hidden trampoline?

The San Francisco-based artist is the subject of a hectically melancholy mid-career survey at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The show brings energy from the street into the ICA’s immaculate, white harborside galleries. The results are enlivening, provocative, and then, on reflection, quietly sad.

McGee is an ex-graffiti artist, now in his late 40s. He acquired an international reputation in the art world by transforming himself into a maker of miscellaneous installations, an arranger of wall clusters of disparate images (lately veering into pop-abstraction and pattern-based typography), and a maker of diorama-like re-creations of graffiti-inspired scenes.


This last side of his work takes its lead from the installations of Ed and Nancy Kienholz, but McGee’s installations, although often politically motivated, lack the Kienholzes’ scorching polemical thrust.

The ICA show, which was organized by the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, contains good examples of all three types. Most were commissioned by museums or other institutions or prepared for commercial gallery shows. Combined, they make for an entertaining, mildly rambunctious show — a thoroughly palatable presentation of once-abrasive energies. It’s not quite “Tagging: The Musical.” But it’s heading that way.

The show (unlike, I’m afraid, the catalog) is saved from nostalgia-driven kitsch by scattered moments of self-consciousness, or panic, that hint at something more private, demented, and true. These moments amount to a kind of staged self-mourning, an apprehension of internal confusion camouflaged by the fake euphoria of expanding visual noise (easy to recognize because easy to relate to).

One long wall near the beginning of the show is given over to a massive painting, predominantly red, that combines aspects of McGee’s comic book-style character graffiti with lively tags and big patches that appear to have been blocked out, or redacted, by cleaning crews.


A hooded mannequin — very lifelike — balances on a trash can, appearing to add his tag to this palimpsest of self-expression — or valorized vandalism, depending on your take. The overall effect, combining accident and intention, accumulation and negation, is diverting.

But like most of McGee’s work, it lacks the congested power of art fired by conviction — art that needed to be made. McGee too often puts his art in service to bottling qualities that are too fleeting and mercurial to contain — above all, the creative upsurge that can come from being part of a “scene,” with all its trappings: togetherness, mutual affirmation, the shared excitement of illicit, nighttime actions. The impulse, finally, is sentimental.

Although McGee reportedly gave up illicit graffiti long ago, he is an eloquent defender of the practice, which he sees as a means for thwarted, factored-out, and ignored members of society to reclaim public space from wielders of political power and from runaway commerce. Despite his own, enviable art world success, he has admonished those who would try to tame graffiti’s energies by employing softer, less contentious terms like “street art.”

Another work (most of them are untitled) is heard, well before it is seen, as a pleasantly chugging background beat. When you arrive at its source — a series of wooden sculptural busts on pedestals with squeaky pistons swinging spray cans against the white wall — the show suddenly deepens.


McGee’s automaton taggers, pounding away at the wall like primitivist head-bangers, parody the oft-heard dismissal of tagging as “mindless vandalism.” But they also leak back into something more private. Is McGee mocking the whole stale opposition between “street cred” and “selling out” which has hounded him, along with other big-league artists, from Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat to Shepard Fairey, Os Gemêos, and Banksy?

It may be something like that. But McGee’s Wailing Wall of automaton taggers felt to me more like an expression of despair. The despair of an artist who knows how to represent certain ideals — the urgency of urban life, of youth, of resistance, creative upswell — without really having anything specifically urgent to communicate himself.

McGee’s real talent may be for arranging things in nattily unorthodox presentations. His clusters of drawings, photographs, and street signage are as much a signature as his well-known character drawings, with their big eyes, grimly clenched teeth, and squashed-looking heads.

He has extended his presentational skills into ambitious installations that incorporate shipping containers, columns of TVs, improvised additions to gallery walls, and hanging clusters of bottles. He has even taken to arranging other people’s work — including a corner display of drawings by his late father, and various works by his late wife (and the mother of his daughter), the artist Margaret Kilgallen.

His more recent turn toward abstract patterning and typography gives the show most of its visual energy. These vibrant patterns, arranged in modular clusters that cover large sections of wall, have a kinetic impact that brings something messy, democratic, and forgiving into the pristine atmosphere of the gallery.


But again, they hardly express any kind of internal conviction. If anything they suggest a horror vacui — an urge toward self-expression that has to override the absence of anything vital for the self to express. (Of course, a lot of people think of tagging in exactly these terms — although perhaps unjustly: After all, what could be more vital than ‘I exist’?)

If McGee’s real genius is for a certain kind of energetic presentation – the gift of the DJ, the sampler, the curator – maybe that gift is enough? I felt it was in the show’s last room, a busy installation combining stacked and vibrantly patterned surfboards, a pot plant, austere but charismatic sections of found cloth, display cases filled with art by members of McGee’s family, and by three local Boston artists (Jesse Littlefield, Josh Brenner, and Ryan Murphy), abstract paintings (including one eye-catching effusion of spray paint on a piece of folded cardboard), and more wall clusters of patterns and typography.

I loved this room, and wanted to stay in it. In its all-embracing anarchism, veering from deeply personal to imperiously aloof, it seemed truer than anything that had come before. As an installation, it lacks the autistic intensity of an installation by, say, Mike Kelley or Thomas Hirschhorn. It is far more laid-back and legible.


If it is sentimental, it’s mainly in the better sense: full of subtle and generous sentiment. It’s art that leaves room for the possibility that it might be just as meaningful to head to the beach and go surfing.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.