Berkeley museum bringing street art inside with Barry McGee

With its jutting angles and concrete walls, the Berkeley Art Museum is the perfect place to display the graffiti art of Barry McGee.

The word “amaze,” scrawled in fat red letters, covers the glass doors at the main entrance. The museum’s facade has been tagged as well. It’s cleverly done; only close up is it clear that the graffiti is confined to a removable tarp.

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“Barry McGee,” running through Dec. 9, is the first midcareer survey of the San Francisco-based artist, who studied painting and printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute before turning to the streets to hone his skills.

The exhibition focuses on his work since the late 1980s and includes etchings, installations and murals. McGee also surfs, and there are stacks of surfboards, some covered in fluorescent geometric shapes.

Throughout the show, viewers are invited to consider the furtive act of tagging. The museum’s angles and gray surfaces make good stand-ins for freeway ramps and urban corners. On one wall hangs a jacket, left open to show how the inner lining has been re-sewn to hide cans of spray paint.

“For me, graffiti means making marks on surfaces using just about anything, be it markers, spray, paint, chalk, lipstick, varnish, ink. Or it can be the result of scratches and incisions,” McGee says in an interview in the exhibition catalog. “The aim is to maintain the energy created by disturbance or excitement in the street. To carry on pissing people off, challenging their ownership.”

On the main floor, a large van sits on its hood. Three figures stand on the rear of the vehicle, balancing on each other’s shoulders like acrobats. On top of them, an animatronic tagger moves his arm back and forth, holding a paint can.

There’s a recreated bodega, complete with signage that bears the pseudonym “R. Fong,” which McGee sometimes uses. Broken chairs, dying plants, wood scraps, a pair of Vespas and other debris surround the shop.

McGee reinvents and reinterprets, taking rusty metal trays from a letterpress shop and using them as frames or as a surface for painting. A standout of the show is a collection of clear glass liquor bottles, each one painted with the face of a cartoonish, sad-eyed man.

“I love graffiti because it enables kids from every social extraction to do something that brings them closer to art, when they normally wouldn’t be stimulated to be visually creative,” McGee says. “Graffiti helps to develop an awareness of immediate expressive and uncontrolled freedom.”

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