The museum can abide street art, but can street art abide the museum? After all, the two seem a bit mismatched. Graffiti is about disrupting the city’s prevailing system of visual real estate and staking a space for the marginalized individual on surfaces that would otherwise efface her. At heart, it is a declaration of “I exist.” Meanwhile, the museum presents itself as an ostensibly accommodating space, wiped clean of visual clutter for the express purpose of showcasing and celebrating the artist. How then to bring so-called street art into such a space, without it immediately flatlining?
Barry McGee, who has by now spent a good deal of his career in sanctioned exhibition spaces across the globe, is fully aware of this conundrum. In fact, one can view his recent work, which goes far beyond graffiti, as the product of it. McGee eschews “art objects” in favor of sprawling installations. Whether through bulging, site-specific clusters of photographs and drawings, incredibly detailed reproductions of street corner bodegas, turned over cars and animatronic taggers, or simply piles of friends’ work, McGee attempts to make room for street art in the gallery by overrunning it with elements of the street itself.
For his first ever mid-career survey, McGee takes over the main floor and two wings of the Berkeley Art Museum with reprises of these past installations, retailored for the space at hand, as well as a few new works. His doleful, down-and-out male characters appear in droves; a bodega variant is there, too. A vertically planted Astro van supports four piggybacking mannequins, the highest of which robotically waves a can of spray paint as though to tag one of the museum’s balcony walls.
The exhibition’s tone winds up falling between two poles, the first of which is holiness. McGee panels the first-floor wing with rusted letterpress trays, some of which frame the subdued visages of his drawn figures, in effect transforming the space into an icon-laden shrine of sorts. On the opposite wall, one of McGee’s old cargo jackets, stuffed with clandestine spray-paint bottles, hangs cross-like. Beyond, a patchy tarp bears the spray-painted image of a scrawny nude, clutching an orb that appears to be ascending heavenward. Such quasi-religious imagery — shrines, icons, martyrs, memorials — reappears throughout the show, uncertainly suggesting a sanctity in street art.
In grinding contrast with this reverential aura, McGee’s animatronic robots (some realistic, others in the form of wood-cut tiki taggers) usher in the opposite pole: kitsch. If McGee was aiming to convey the liveliness of the graffiti act through these rigid, corpse-like robots, he achieved the perfect opposite. If he was going for tongue-in-cheek, he severely overshot it, and the museum’s main floor acquires the flavor of an abject Disneyland in consequence. Given a museum, McGee winds up emphasizing two of the institution’s least neutral personalities: chapel and mausoleum.
Barry McGee runs through December 9 at the Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley). 510-642-0808 or BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu