Barry McGee reigns as one of the most legitimate artists of his genre and his time. While some of his “graffiti” peers have spent 20 years cashing in at every corner possible, he has quietly created an amazing body of work. He’s an absurdly talented artist that assembles work and exhibitions that don’t just appeal to the eye; they’re a sensory overload. Entering a show by Barry is an immersive event that leaves you with a feeling of excitement and wonder.
The first McGee show I saw was a divine accident. Walking around Soho in 2005, a 15″ yellow illuminated square with a red character on it caught my eye. There was no signage on this industrial building, but I loved the familiar linework. It turned to be the Deitch Projects; I was entering the most influential show of my life. Inside, graffiti-coated conversion vans stacked on each other like alphabet blocks. Animatronic, hooded characters tagged oversized dioramas. Dizzying, crisp patterns covered endless wall space. Nothing could be taken at face value. There were surprises including a narrow passage through ill-lit halls into a basement-like space filled with bonus sketches by Barry and his father, Jon McGee.
The way he used every bit of that space in an interactive, controlled chaos gripped my mind with energetic curiosity. Rather than just inviting an audience into a space to present work on the walls, Barry brought you into his experiences. You were in the middle of his active, smoldering mind. This comprehensive interaction is what makes his work so alluring.
The retrospective collection at the ICA is a testament to an exhibition only being limited by the artist’s ability, and Barry holds back nothing. Here he utilizes every inch once again, inviting viewers to feel the energy of a moment and empowering joy of being creative with everything around you. The first two rooms show Barry using discarded letterpress trays, empty spray cans, a variety of “trash” as his working surface. Collaborations with his late wife, Margaret Kilgallen and father appear, showing some of his strongest inspiration and influence. Their styles certainly inform his refined, well known homeless men on booze bottles. Each room flows into the next with sights, sounds and movement curating your intake.
The most chaotic moments occur in the third room. A dumpster is filled to the brim with scavenged Boston trash. To the left, Easter Island-esque statues scrawl their spray paint on the wall, conjuring up the connection of modern artists to cavemen (we’re all eager to leave our mark!). Turning the dumpster’s corner, a bathroom scene lines the interior with an animatronic character tagging “Amaze”. To the right is a wave emerging from the wall. The gigantic curl is covered in precision cut frames edge to edge with drawings, photos and day-glo orange fills. The orange acts as a pause for the eye between images, but they keep you on edge with vibrating tones. While contemplating the bathroom tagger and wave, a 136 tv tower blares behind you. Showing footage of gang initiations, car derby crashes, goth kid interviews and static amongst roughly 35 other looped clips, you’re lured in. This spot is the epicenter of this show. It’s all aspects of life’s noises and distractions clammering for your attention.
The wave wraps the wall and into the next space that combines the energy with friends and family. Components involve his daughter’s paintings, and Boston artists Ryan Murphy, Josh Brenner, and Jesse Littlefield. There are bright surfboard juxtaposed nostalgically against tattered objects in glass cases. Some of Barry’s newest work lines these walls in masterful, clean lines. This room finalizes the show on a serene note highlighting an artist that continues to create awe-inspiring work that is an absolute must-visit this year. In his calculated chaos, you’re surrounded by a mind overflowing with ideas and energy.
Photos by local photo hero Paris Visone.