Is Barry McGee a graffiti art sellout?

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Source: Forbes – 20.9.2012

Invited to exhibit in one of New York‘s premier galleries a dozen years ago, Barry McGee responded by upending several trucks. He then bombed the wreckage with spraypaint and made it the centerpiece of an installation that confronted art collectors with an ersatz urban ghetto mimicking those he ordinarily vandalized on the downlow. One of the most memorable exhibitions in the 14-year history of Deitch Projects, the spectacle became the basis of McGee’s nearly unparalleled popularity, culminating in his current midcareer retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum. Through it all, he’s struggled to reconcile mainstream appeal with his stated aim “to carry on pissing people off”. It’s been a losing battle. His furiously overturned trucks are now crowd-pleasers.
McGee’s notion of graffiti is completely conventional. Like many graffiti artists, he’s motivated by issues of ownership. McGee is enraged that public spaces are visually dominated by the advertising messages of private enterprise, and determined to take back the streets through acts of vandalism. (Tagging is an assault on the status quo. The chaotic potential of graffiti is liberating both for the author and for society as a whole.) Where McGee differs from most graffiti artists – and artists generally – is in terms of sheer technical ability. He is a virtuoso draughtsman, whose caricatures of indigents are on par with those of modern masters such as George Grosz. Seen on the street – often executed in monochrome spraypaint – they instill empathy for people passed over by  society and all too often overlooked by us individually.

Also unlike the work of most graffiti artists, McGee’s drawings are as meaningful inside the gallery or museum as on the street. As illicit outdoor pieces, his caricatures disorientingly seduce passers-by with their unexpected beauty, counteracting the blind disdain that drives gentrification. Indoors, executed at much smaller scale as clusters of pen-and-ink drawings on scraps of paper and discarded liquor bottles, the caricatures vibrantly compress the urban environment in all its human complexity. As McGee explained in a 2008 interview, “I see a really good tag on a building, a man passed out in the middle of the street, a couple hugging, a cop arresting a panhandler. I’m interested in how all these things are happening in one block.” In other words, this is not the sort of work likely to “carry on pissing people off”. It isn’t a rebuff, but an invitation.

Tagging upturned trucks obviously lacks that fine-tipped nuance. Moreover, while raw vandalism can serve a political purpose on the street, transplanting it to a gallery or museum trivializes the gesture. The artificial mayhem doesn’t menace art aficionados. On the contrary, the ghetto is tamed, transformed into gritty ambiance for a pile-up funhouse.

To his credit, McGee has taken care not to commodify vandalism. One reason the trucks appeal to him is that they can’t be collected like paintings. But his good intentions hardly matter if they lead him to produce frivolous entertainment. Most of the world’s graffiti doesn’t belong in a museum because it derives meaning from the street. With his caricatures, McGee has found a subject and technique that thrive inside. Pleasing crowds with overturned trucks doesn’t necessarily make him a sellout. But as an artist, he sells himself short.

By Jonathon Keats

Posted in Exhibitions, Graffiti Writing Tagged with: ,

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