First midcareer retrospective of SF artist Barry McGee opens at BAM/PFA

Artist Barry McGee made his name on the streets of San Francisco. Walls, overpasses, freight cars, bottles — anything he found became his canvas. His subjects, too, came right from urban life all around him. His tag — “Twist” and its variations — is  tracked by his fans who post evidence of their sightings on Flickr.

But titles like “graffiti god” and “graffiti legend,” which populate a Google-search hit parade, fail to convey the breadth or depth of McGee’s work, which has shown in galleries from San Francisco to Manhattan and at the Venice Biennale. A show opening this week at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will take care of that handily.

Street characters painted on bottles, by Barry McGeeThe first-ever midcareer survey of the San Francisco-born and –trained McGee’s art, opening Aug. 24, presents an exceptionally comprehensive look at his work from the late 1980s to the present. Included are rarely seen early etchings, letterpress printing trays and liquor bottles painted with his trademark cast of down-and-out urban characters, constellations of vibrant op-art painted panels, animatronic taggers and an elaborate re-creation of a cacophonous street-corner bodega.

McGee has said that his work “explores the sometimes humorous ills of contemporary city life” — created by one who is part of it. “Using a visual vocabulary drawn from graffiti, comics, hobo art and sign painting, McGee celebrates his Mission District neighborhood while at the same time calling attention to the harmful effects of capitalism, gentrification and corporate control of public space,” according to the museum’s description.

The artist himself has spent the last two months at Berkeley, during the installation of the exhibit.

“Barry has influenced a generation of international artists, with the Bay Area as the welcoming and appreciative center for his dynamic, engaged and progressive approach to art-making,” says BAM/PFA director Lawrence Rinder, organizer of the exhibit with BAM assistant curator Dena Beard. “So it is with a sense of privilege and special responsibility that we present this first midcareer survey of his work.”

New Cal students — incoming freshmen and transfers — will be among the first people to see the exhibition, if they stop by for BAM/PFA’s free Poster Pizza Palooza and outdoor screening on Friday, Aug. 24 at the museum. The special event, for new students only, starts at 7 p.m., and the screening of 1968 cult classic “Pretty Poison” is set for 8:30 p.m

Barry McGee taking a freight containerOn Aug. 29, Rinder and Beard will lead a tour of the exhibit, offering their insights into the artist and his work. UC Berkeley graduate students also will lead guided tours on most Thursdays and Sundays; the full schedule is posted on the BAM/PFA website.

McGee also serves as the inspiration for a series of fall 2012 L@TE Friday Night @ BAM/PFA events,  including performances by Devendra Banhart and Peggy Honeywell (aka Clare Rojas). Other programs include a conversation with Rinder and Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and an illustrated lecture about the history of graffiti by photographer Jim Prigoff.  The full schedule is on the BAM/PFA website.

The exhibit will remain at Berkeley through Dec. 9, and then will travel to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.