Black and White Program

Artists of the 55th Carnegie International: Barry McGee

May 30th, 2008 by John Eastman

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What would you want someone who currently has a very limited understanding of graffiti artists and who most likely has a negative connotation of them to know? What would you say to reach out to them to help them understand artists better, why they do what they do?
McGEE: Okay… like most things in this world that we don’t understand, war, poverty, abstract art, I would do some research on the subject, find some books, let’s say… ‘The Faith of Graffiti’, a book from the early 70′s by Norman Mailer or ‘Getting Up: Subway Graffiti in New York’ a book from the 80′s by Craig Castleman. There are also many great contemporary books on the subject. The negative connotations are media fueled and driven, as most people would expect, as graffiti is naturally competing with the lucrative advertising space in our cities.

What inspired your work in the Carnegie International “Life on Mars” exhibit this year?
McGEE: I had some loose ideas of what I wanted to happen in that long hallway at the Carnegie. It, the hallway, being a public thoroughfare, for employees, families, catering teams, and whatnot, limited the amount of space I wanted to squeeze off legally. I had envisioned these wall “boils”, for lack of a better term, coming together close enough just to squeeze ones head past. In the end I could only go out two feet from the wall at any given point. The freight elevator that opens by the television piece is one of the most beautiful elevators I had ever encountered. When I saw that open while working there, I decided a band must play there on the opening night, starting their set a few floors down and doors just opening up to full blast when it came to the first floor. It came together with Ty Segall playing in there for 30 minutes during the opening, then the plug was pulled. I am very happy with how it came out.

Your mechanical graffiti artists in the Carnegie International seem to transfer or remove the act of creation from the human artist to a mechanical artist, and create fun for the viewer— or let them in on it. Are you possibly passing the baton here with this piece? How do you think about your mechanical grafitti-sprayers?
McGEE: I have been fascinated for some time, how the general public is often left in the dark, in some of the situations the tagger puts him/herself through. I’ve had many, wonderful experiences as a youth, perch upon a friend’s shoulder, and another above me, spray painting, just to eek out some kind of existence on this planet. It always represented a team effort, working together on a common goal, slight rebellion, and standing back and still wondering how we did that. I feel like its a very patriotic piece.

What do you want people who view your Carnegie International exhibit to walk away with? What do you want to instill in their minds?
McGEE: That is a good question… I was already very satisfied with my installation after speaking, on a daily basis, to the guards, the guard who shook Mick Jagger’s hand, janitors, Carnegie installers, Matt the 80 hour-a-week caterer, and others while working in the public’s view. Each person came away with a certain piece that would resonate, or enjoyed watching a mess being made bigger each day. I often hang, what I would consider a ‘nice’ piece of artwork, next to a photo of 27 year old doing a tag on a wall somewhere, or person sleeping on the sidewalk, or a torn up letter I found.

I think it is how I categorize things in my head as I see them. I see a really good tag on a building, a man passed out in the middle of the street, a couple hugging, a cop arresting a panhandler. I’m interested in how all these things are happening on one block. It’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s terrible, it’s going to be okay. The whole emotional range in one block. I think I would like my art to do something like that.

In street art you typically cannot know what the lifespan of your work will be, or plan a viewer’s approach as precisely as you can in galleries. Does the condition of where you exhibit cause you to feel differently about your work or create a different type of work for that specific installation?
McGEE: I believe so. That would apply to indoors also, but with a much narrower audience and as you mention, a date when it all comes to a close. For better or worse, I think I have become dependent on uncertainty, indoors and out, and use it as a split second decision maker.

Much of your street art has been painted over. You must know that is a possibility when you are creating them. How does that affect what you create? How do you feel about your work being destroyed? Is there a sense of loss of any type? Do you photograph your “outside work”?
McGEE: Okay, first I think I need to make a disclosure. I am a 42-year-old man, married, child. It has been a good five or six years since I’ve done a good rooftop or bold location. What graffiti I do now, if any at all, is limited to, but not exclusive to, bathrooms, an abandoned car, and gallery walls before covering them with abstract panels. All of these locations hardly constitute a hardcore graffiti lifestyle, and definitely not in the eyes of a 17-year-old anymore. That said, yes, I have, we have, the whole graffiti community, has lost everything they have done. And what the roller doesn’t fix the sun eventually fades into undecipherable blobs. There is something very freeing about that. Some of my favorite ‘masterpieces’ destroyed, gone. Some of my biggest failures, somehow, never get painted over, the butt of all jokes for decades. And yes, people take photos. I took some. Other people took some. Now, everyone takes images and posts them immediately as if they will last forever on the net. I’m old fashioned.

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1 response so far.

  • Rob Pegrum - May 31, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    Great article, saw his exhibit last year at Watari-um@Tokyo, hanging out for someone with enough guts to bring him down to Sydney

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