Barry McGee at Deitch Projects
WHY, BARRY, WHY???
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.”
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