Barry McGee at Deitch Projects


Those of you who did not have the good fortune to live in San Francisco during the nineteen-nineties may not know of Barry McGee as the Phenomenon. Under the tag name “Twist†he provided graffiti-observant citizens with endless sources of awe, amusement and introspection. His hand was instantly recognizable, as the endlessly inventive king of urban poetry, disdaining the garish, riotously unreadable glyphs of run-of-the-mill taggers in favor of beautifully executed, emotionally pregnant drawing. His long lines of large-scale heads in the subway tunnels, seemingly identical, but each with a different expression, once prompted a roommate of mine to declare, “he must use a template. I’d like to know what it looks like.â€

He never used a template, of course. You can’t hide a four-foot template from the cops, when accosted while climbing a billboard at three in the morning. Our “Twist†was simply formidably gifted and mind-bogglingly prolific. When he wasn’t out tagging he was filling galleries--the Diego Rivera at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Yerba Buena Center, ultimately the SF MOMA--with junk-shop installations made up of piles of small, whimsically sad drawings, slapped into secondhand frames and jammed against one another in antiformalistic chaos, seguing cheerfully into words and figures painted drippily onto the wall, frequently juxtaposed with rusting printer’s plates and random bric-a-brac. Despite the seeming chaos, however, the aesthetics of materials, color, line and object were sufficiently considered as to evoke the poetry of contrasts. His palette in those years was largely restricted to red, black, white and yellow ochre, and his figures were compassionately observed cartoons of sad-sack fellows--ground down by life, but retaining an innate human dignity.

Given his talent and workaholism, it did not surprise me in the least when I wandered into Deitch Projects last weekend and recognized his hand. However, at first I thought he must be collaborating with somebody else. Why else was the gallery filled with smashed-up trucks and vans, piles of video monitors, and automated mannequins? Most of the monitors were registering either white noise or video filler; horrible noises echoed off the cavernous ceiling, and acrid smoke filled the atmosphere. Upon further examination, the smoke proved to be emerging from contraptions attached to the truck engines, which were generating this mess ON PURPOSE. A few of the monitors were running actual videos, but the din and the smoke rendered it impossible to concentrate on them.

Deeper exploration of the space revealed an entire public restroom, transported into the gallery, with its own pimply-faced mannequin, perpetually graffiti-ing the mirror. Other stairs and ladders led to a shack and a pit, filled with some lovely samples of drawing and a great deal more chaotic garbage. The mezzanine contained the only halfhearted examples of vintage McGee, including several Jesus Christ portraits, some screaming, some without mouths, most of them virtually identical. Stairs leading to a second pit revealed a wall of printer’s plates--just the plates, without any of the lyrical visual elements which formerly showed them up as more than rusty tiles holding up the wall. Almost as an afterthought, a lone, random totem pole held a spray can to the wall, presumably in an attempt to attach something like depth to the entire miserable enterprise.

I don’t mean to be harsh, here, Barry, but what is this about? Is this the result of getting co-opted by an art dealer who thinks that Over The Top is Not Enough? Was it the desperate need to fill a gallery the size of an airplane hanger which led to the creation of what might pass for a rendition of GraffitiLand at Disney World?

Because the vast majority of all this stuff is simply not necessary. The hand of the shabby punk is sufficiently implied, in the elegant line of spray paint which remains to declare it, without installing a bunch of fatuous mannequins. The trucks, the smoke and the noise are quite sufficiently obviated by the torqued grids of clashing colors nailed all round the walls. And what about the klutzy use of space? Is it merely the fact of having so much of it to fill, that led to making architectural decisions that are not merely antiformalistic, but sullenly, pointlessly graceless? Who produced this show, Barry, the poet in your soul, or the ego of Jeffrey Deitch?

2005 by Stephanie Lee Jackson