Barry McGee: Mature Works

Zoey Mondt


Barry McGee: Mature Works
Gallery at REDCAT, Los Angeles

One of the basic tenets in Donald Kuspit’s The End of Art is the idea that a generation of jaded and detached artists has created a desert of creative superficiality. Rather than creating art, these cultural death-mongers produce “postart,” a coarse reflection of our materialist society and social indifference, absent beauty, intention, spirituality, despair and hope alike. In his first solo exhibition in Los Angeles since his project at UCLA’s Hammer Museum in 2000, Barry McGee’s site-specific installation at REDCAT in downtown LA is a manic outburst of postart multimedia, paintings, drawings and sculpture. The show is McGee’s second exhibition with former REDCAT gallery director and curator Eungie Joo. Their first collaboration was “Regards, Barry McGee” in 1998, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While I take issue with much of what Kuspit posits in The End of Art, the work exhibited in McGee’s show at REDCAT tends to support Kuspit’s central premise and leaves me pondering the case he’s made for art’s end.

Presumably ironic, “Mature Works,” includes a new sculptural/environmental construction and a selection of existing works that transform the cavernous 1-room gallery into a sort of crackheads’ bazaar, the kind you might stumble upon in MacArthur Park early Sunday morning, rows of tarp shanties festooned with paraphernalia painstakingly collected overnight, fussy sidewalk assemblages stretched from grass to curb. Among the clutter at REDCAT, a predictably overturned car oozing spent cans of spray paint, cases displaying empty bottles painted with McGee’s iconic grizzled hobo, a rickety raw wood scaffolding stalagmite projected horizontally from a wall of clunky Day-glo geometric abstractions, buzzing kinetic sculptures, a box crate filled with throbbing noise and staticky stacks of scavenged TVs, and animatronic taggers perched on each other’s shoulders in an effort to reach the only blank wall space left on which to throw up their mark.

It’s worth mentioning that much, if not most, of the work in this show is old work. Besides the fact that all the work in the gallery is made by Barry McGee, individual pieces lack relevance to each other and the show at large, and some of the work feels rehashed. The show lacks curatorial premise and fails to reveal an arc toward artistic maturity.

When art is viewed as enterprise, rather than building a cohesive body of work that could span an eighty-year career, striking while the iron’s hot seems to be the singular intent. Searching for the next sensation, dealers troll the international art fairs wearing slick white suits akin to the old Hollywood shysters who, underhandedly, fed childstars Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney massive speed pills so they could dance faster and longer in blockbuster movie after movie before the blight of puberty struck them dead in the water. Frequently plucked fresh from grad school, impressionable young artists often just stick with a certain style once an art dealer or curator has declared it The One. The result is a breed of artists burnt out before they get the chance to grow up and discover their own artistic process and hone their own aesthetics and perspectives. There is a conspicuous lack of critical response to street artists’ and other Lowbrow artwork. No one seems to be pointing out that, regardless of its hipster quotient, there is a manifest lack of ideas and point of view, the stuff that gives art its real value and reminds us it’s not simply something to be bought and sold. When artists are encouraged (and have the courage) to focus more attention on art rather than the art business, the result is, simply, more meaningful art.

More mature than other artists of his ilk, McGee was born 1966 in San Francisco and received his BFA in painting and printmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1991. "I always thought it was a temporary thing. My stuff, in particular, I don’t give a darn about. That’s the nature of the beast," McGee responded to the news in 2005, of the impending destruction of murals he and his late wife, Margaret Kilgallen, had painted on the walls of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s parking garages. LACMA’s position on the soon-to-be-destroyed garage art, painted sections of concrete, was articulated by LACMA curator Lynn Zelevansky: Any conservation effort would take "huge amounts of money and contradict the off-the-cuff, street-art nature of the work.” LACMA’s somewhat cavalier position was and is a reflection of highbrow museums’ sustained ambivalence toward Lowbrow street artists and their work, despite the current trend toward acquiring “street cred” along with the work of subculture art-stars like McGee, Kilgallen, Chris Johanson and Ed Templeton. In the art world, it’s still much easier to cross from high to low, not the other way around.

While museums have been slow to embrace street and Lowbrow art, tags and graffiti, characteristic codes of the street, once used to differentiate street subculture from commercial culture, have been eagerly appropriated by mainstream commerce. Graffiti artists and taggers, previously viewed as the bane of society, now have corporate sponsors and design $500 sneakers for Nike, skateboards and gear for Supreme and Vans. Street artists, predominantly hipster males, have become commodities within the system they intended to subvert. Cross-assimilations further the breakdown: Supreme skateboards designed by Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince, Deitch Projects’ “Session the Bowl” show in 2003, which featured an in-gallery pro skate “session” along with works by Barry McGee, Ed Templeton and Ryan McGinness.

As pure expression in line with the values of American society and an urban experience McGee himself describes as "urban ills, overstimulations, frustrations, addictions and trying to maintain a level head under the constant bombardment of advertising,” McGee’s mature work resembles nothing less than the America he espouses: Capitalistic intentions, alienation subverted, mimicked style packaged and sold as limited edition sneakers. “The American Dream has nothing to do with criminality, but with a desire for independence and adventure, so escaping from any kind of control or definition also signifies not being identified, acting illegally, standing outside of every category of art and intervention on the streets,” McGee explains. This anti-establishment aesthetic may be admirable in theory but without insightful execution the result is indifferent art, symptomatic of the ills the artist may have once sought to transcend, urban society run amok, adrift in excess, hubris, and human indifference.

-Zoey Mondt

Through November 25, 2007
Gallery hours: noon to 6pm or curtain, closed Mondays
Admission to the gallery is always free
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