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Art with a Twist: Berkeley Art Museum’s Gala Features Work by Literal Iconoclast

January 27, 2016
by M.V. Wood
Image of Barry McGee and his art

Yes, the new Berkeley Art Museum will be filled with impressive works of art, but how many museums can claim that their fundraiser’s invitations and dishes are becoming collectors’ items? Then again, how many are able to say that their party paraphernalia bears the designs of an American cult figure?

The fold-out invite card and the plates for Thursday’s event feature patterns created by Barry McGee—the man who back in the early 1990s created a name for himself, literally, as a San Francisco graffiti artist who went by the tag “Twist.”

McGee and his compatriots spray-painted their names inside tunnels, on the sides of buildings, on the sides of trains. He skateboarded and he surfed. He was part of the loose-knit, lowbrow group of artists known as the Mission School, and a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute. A whole generation of anti-establishment rebels, artists and kids came to regard McGee as a folk hero. And as his work began to be shown in galleries, the establishment, corporations and the world of highbrow art became smitten with McGee as well. Adidas used his artwork for a sneaker. Cadillac commissioned him to create a large mural in Brooklyn for an arts project, the escapade documented in a six-page spread in Vanity Fair. Facebook later commissioned a work for its Menlo Park campus. And last summer, the artist became the focus of a long feature in The New Yorker.

 Barry McGee drawing on a wall
Artist Barry McGee was featured in a PBS special

It was about this time that Eric McDougall—a Cal alum who is creative director for events culminating in the Berkeley museum’s grand opening Sunday at its new Center Street location—went out surfing and was struck by inspiration.

“It occurred to me,” he says, “that Barry would be the perfect artist for this.”

Nor was it a completely far-fetched idea. The museum already had a good relationship with McGee. A couple of years ago, the museum held a mid-career retrospective of his work, which turned out to be one of the its most highly attended shows. Says the museum’s media relations manager, Peter Cavagnaro: “McGee’s appeal transcends the contemporary art world and extends to street culture, the skateboarding and surf worlds, and any other number of subcultures.”

Soon, McDougall approached McGee and asked if he would design the party invitations for the new Berkeley museum’s opening. And would he do so for free? McGee replied, “Sure. Why not?”

On McGee’s Wikipedia page, the artist is quoted as having famously said, “Sometimes a rock soaring through a plate of glass can be the most beautiful, compelling work of art I have ever seen.”

But on the day I talk with him, McGee doesn’t sound at all like a vandalizing rabble-rouser. His cadence is mellow; the words and ideas, caring and thoughtful. He has the habit of ending his sentences with “What do you think?” which makes him sound like a kindly therapist.

He talks for a while about graffiti and vandalism—about the argument he has made that because he lives in an urban environment amid constant advertising, he feels entitled to partake rather than allowing public surfaces to be surrendered solely to corporations buying ad space. He sees the streets as in a perpetual struggle, with advertising shouting “Buy this!” and taggers yelling “I was here!” “Everyone,” he says, “wants rights to that public space … you know what I mean?”

“You know what would be really cool? If we go and break a bunch of the plates. Of course we should. A little chaos, that’s always good.”

There is inescapable irony in the notion of McGee’s party invitations, which were mailed out in December, becoming collectibles. Much of what McGee does as an artist plays around with notions of ownership, property and permanence—turning everything on its head with acts of destruction.

“When we created the book for his mid-career retrospective, the first thing Barry wanted to do was burn it,” recalls Dena Beard, who co-curated the show. “Barry has a keen design aesthetic and he is incessantly drawing. He can do it in his sleep.” At the same time so much of his energy goes toward creation, he also has a drive toward destruction. “He is very aware of his art as property, and so the act of annihilating and negating it is important to him. I think it’s his way of keeping his value system intact, of always remembering to put people before property.”

In my time with McGee, we talked about social justice, and about how UC Berkeley students have a reputation for championing it. I ask if this, perhaps, is the reason he agreed to donate his work for the Cal invitations, given that the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives is a Cal institution. It’s the perfect opportunity for McGee to make a grand mission statement, align himself with Berkeley, and enhance his brand as an activist-artist. But, this easy opening for self-promotion doesn’t even seem to register. “Well, the advancement of human rights for all people, that’s incredibly important,” he says. “But as far as the invitations go, that mostly came about because I know Eric, we surf. And he made it really easy for me. I just gave him my portfolio and he picked out what he wanted to use.”

And with that, McGee starts talking about surfing. A lot. His ideas, opinions, questions all flow one into the other. He shows no concern of grabbing onto any one of them and making a statement about who he is and what his art means. If anything, his way of communicating underscores the idea of impermanence and chaos and the shifting flow of life.

My questions circle back to the BAMPFA opening, and I mention seeing a photo of the limited-edition dinner plates with his designs that guests at the sold-out gala will be able to purchase as part of the fundraiser.

“They went ahead and made the plates? That’s cool,” McGee says. After a split-second pause, he adds, “You know what would be really cool? If we go and break a bunch of the plates. Of course we should. A little chaos, that’s always good.…What do you think?”

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