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Cult Artist Barry McGee at BAM/PFA

Published August 29, 2012 on California Home + Design

Barry McGee has several aliases. Some know him as Twist, others as Ray Fong (he goes by Lydia Fong too). Then there’s Raymond Virgil and Bernon Vernon. All of these figures combined create McGee—the illusive, legendary, cult artist. The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive just opened the first ever mid-career retrospective of McGee’s work.

Part graffiti artist, part fine artist, part philosopher, McGee is an immensely prolific creator. His work covers everything from intricate black-and-white ballpoint pen sketches to wall-sized florescent color explosions to life-like sculptures depicting small shops and street scenes.

“We are starting it from the point when he started writing on walls,” said assistant curator Dena Beard. “It’s an archival showcase of an impulse.”

The first thing you see when you walk into the museum is a towering life-sized sculpture of four guys standing on each others shoulders creating a human chain. The guy at the top of the tower is spray painting a bright red tag on an impossible-to-reach spot on the museum’s concrete wall.

“He is totally a California artist.” Beard said, “He shows where vandals, artists, and surfers can come together.”

McGee was professionally trained in painting and printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute but his acclaim grew on the streets of San Francisco in the 1980’s under his graffiti tag name Twist. His often-humorous and sometimes-sad work draws from these roots of urban culture, comics, graphics, and hobo art.

Besides several jaw-dropping installation pieces, McGee’s rarely seen early etchings are on display along with colorful wall-sized panels displaying artwork from different periods of his career. One wall is filled with dozens of dangling old liquor bottles brightly painted with portraits of down-and-out men.

“They’re not meant to be shown alone,” Beard said. “They all talk to each other in his mind.”

The Barry McGee exhibit is a culmination of McGee’s previous major shows at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and many others. It opened August 24 and runs through December 9, 2012 at BAM/PFA. In addition to the exhibition, the museum is hosting a series of events, including a public conversation with between BAM/PFA Director Lawrence Rinder and director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles Jeffrey Deitch. For more information, go to BAM/PFA’s website.

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