first published in Juxtapoz, December 17, 2015



Review: Barry McGee “China Boo” @Ratio 3, San Francisco

by Matt Gonzalez

Barry McGee’s “China Boo” at Ratio 3, is his first solo gallery offering at the space since 2008, and it follows his critically acclaimed 2012 retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum. For nearly three decades, he has defined a movement and attracted many imitators. But this exhibition affirms McGee’s importance and can be read as both emphasizing abstraction as well as presenting the theme of a thrift shop and all the ramshackle qualities one might find there.

It also makes socio-political statements about alienation and displacement while contextualizing it in San Francisco themes. McGee boosts his renegade associates, who he invites to show with him in the adjacent L. Quan Check Cashing & Healing Arts Centre, and thus reaffirms the values that have always grounded his own career—all the while declaring an opposition to the economic forces that place this cultural scene in peril. It’s a cleaner show than McGee has previously offered, but it does retain a sufficient messiness to mask a deliberative acceptance of his position as one of America’s most popular and accomplished artists.


The geometric abstraction is presented with figurative elements, but the new McGee patterns present a visual lexicon that moves away from the predominance of slacked-jawed face drawings. Those are present, to be sure, but the abstraction dominates, adorning the walls with a dizzying array of movement and color. It isn’t op art, but it does have elements of visual flurry. McGee has also abandoned a geometric pattern that he has used in the past—a three-dimensional square/cube pattern—signaling that, within even this kind of painting, he has sharpened his focus, complicated it in fact, and isn’t satisfied to simply repeat himself. I’m not aware of these patterns having names, so they are hard to write about, but they are more complex than before, and McGee relies on the juxtaposition of larger and smaller panels, each with a different geometric pattern, side-by-side, to emphasize the collision of visual experiences. Their orientation is also sometimes purposefully askew, meaning he isn’t interested in simple vertical and horizontal lines, but rather favors an axial confusion.

Multiple reds, including both a flat and bright red are used in abundance, as well as something that looks akin to neon, which could be a glossy latex house paint. He favors white with a tinge of yellow in it and also a light yellow with beige in it, each combination selected to heighten contrast.


The larger pieces in the exhibition consist of a cluster of smaller works, fitted together like a puzzle to make the gigantic abstractions comprised, in one case, of about 150 pieces. He’s combined artworks in the past, but now he leaves no doubt that his intention is not to exhibit smaller works in an installation but rather to make an impressive single massive work. In contrast to past installations where pieces were individually framed and then assembled, sometimes overlapping, McGee has arranged the entire set of smaller panels into a single large picture frame screwed directly into the wall. How he decides the coordination of the pieces is impossible to assess. And that may be the point; it escapes predictability. In other areas of the gallery, McGee plays with the picture’s border, utilizing multi-sided boards, usually octagons, and thereafter paints red lines around the edges, leaving the center off-white. They are abstractions but with greater restraint.

For all the talk about McGee being a graffiti or street artist, a close look at these works reveals an artistry that goes well beyond that. His line, at times, has such a fine detail that to reference the days when he held a spray can seems tired. The abstractions fit into an important tradition in centuries of art making. The geometric mosaics are reminiscent of the tile work in the Alhambra in Andalusia, Spain, although McGee could be referencing any of a multitude of influences including European modernist movements such as Dutch Neo-Plasticism and Italian Futurism.


It is worth noting that, in many places where the corners of four panels meet, he has painted his slack-faced images. These don’t appear to have been done on site—the detailing would be too painstaking to accomplish them in such a setting. Rather, they are clearly studio pieces that suggest a deliberative choice to make the pieces separation-proof, for anyone wanting a traditional and complete portrait painting made of a single panel.

In addition to geometric patterns and faces, McGee presents his alias R. Fong, or simply Fong and letter abbreviations, which refer to his various graffiti crews, THR and DFW. Western lettering and old shop signs are referenced here.


When McGee does paint the iconic faces, he uses gouache to get the fine detailing he needs. Using fine Rafael brushes (a pointed quill brush originating in France), these compositions delve more deeply into precise detail than the other works presented. On the wall, these images still work. The faces, which have a slack-jawed quality, suggest a certain sadness or alienation; they are the tired faces of modernity. Yet the presentation of these works on bottles seem unnecessary to me. Recurring tropes are to be expected, but McGee has graduated to something else now and the bottle works are as if he’s looking over his shoulder. He does place the bottles horizontally in a vitrine under glass, lying closely to one another, rather than hanging them vertically, which lets the viewer encounter them as if they are littered on the street and fallen on their sides. To that end, they seem appropriate. The painted bottles utilize a relatively limited palette of two or three tonal elements. None are hung with wire as they have been in the past.


Stacked surfboards and smaller ceramic cups and flared-rimmed vases add a personal touch and affirm the iconography that McGee wants to be associated with. His obsession with surfing and old surfboards is clear. Most of them are longboards from the 1960s, with pronounced fins and rounded fronts and some adorned with silkscreen caricatures of squirrels and other figures. The images aren’t fully recognizable, but they reference old mascots or logos for product brands from the 1960s, which have been designed by McGee himself. It’s hard to know what McGee wants to say about these surfboards. They represent a type of surfing that veteran surfers say is akin to walking on water. The heavier longboard allows the surfer to stand straight up when catching a wave, exemplified in many of McGee’s historical drawings. It’s the epitome of cool and a type of surfing that shuns stunts in favor of style. Somewhere here, I get the impression that McGee simply wants the things that comprise his life to be near the things he himself has made.


Many ceramic pieces are presented on pedestals not far away from the surfboards and confirm McGee’s fastidiousness with surface. The under-pieces appear to be made of glass (in one instance glass along the rim of the piece was, most likely, purposely visible) and covered with papier-mâché on the outside. They are layered and painted then finished, likely by meticulously sanding them, to create a dull, but smooth surface. They have a bone-like exterior in some cases and then are often painted with faces and other designs. They are placed with found wooden totem faces and other random objects. The placement of these wooden pieces play off of the slack-jawed faces he incorporates in his paintings and are also about texture, again a theme that is important to McGee when one considers the painstaking effort he takes to paint and sand cement cinder blocks that he then uses as a pedestal for paintings. In one instance, he’s covered the raw cement of a cinder block with multiple layers of paint to make it smooth and shiny. Thereafter sanding it to get the surface he wants. It’s a demonstration in workmanship and process.


The entire exhibition could be McGee’s version of a thrift store, one that highlights the variety of things one might find there along with the melancholy of what thrift shopping represents in a particular historical moment, especially when no other option exists. First of all, visitors to the gallery are greeted by a folk, hand-painted watermelon sign. It looks vintage, like a piece of Americana, and is the sort of thing one might see at a roadside fruit vendor. Thrift stores, like McGee’s installation, are littered with ceramics, glass, tables, and all sorts of things to look at. Of course, American goods, even the recycled ones, are often manufactured in China. It’s a hallmark of the curio shop to find tags dangling from every offering. Here McGee has embedded seemingly random numbers in his geometric abstractions, but more likely he’s referencing pricing in a cheap shop. 199, 188, 99, 255 are really $1.99, $1.88, $.99, and $2.55 (though the decimal point is omitted).

Even his sad-face figures, which are embedded within the larger geometric work, suggest the expression of a sullen consumer who roams around the thrift store. But solace can still be obtained by shopping, or so society tells us. We are reminded that even the most alienated person is programmed to seek comfort by participating in American consumerism by shopping at the local thrift store. This alienation, which is captured in the slack-jawed face drawings, is a reference to the indifference people feel by bleak economic forecasts. This is even further highlighted by the act of inviting visitors into a space on San Francisco’s iconic Mission Street, an area populated by poor immigrants and working-class people who are struggling to make ends meet.


Consistent with this theme is the presentation of a salvaged piece of round concrete now known to have been made by artist Dave Hardy, once installed at the legendary Warm Water Cove, the graffiti and punk location off the eastern tip of Hunter’s Point, at 24th and 3rd Street. The industrialized area has since been cleaned up so the concrete rock’s presence at Ratio 3 is a gesture of survival for a cultural movement, despite its displacement. McGee and his crew rescued this piece (without knowledge it was an art piece or who was responsible for it) and now its energy—from all the many art happenings it has witnessed and soaked in—permeates the gallery.


Adjacent to Ratio 3, McGee has commandeered an abandoned check-cashing store (its bullet proof glass remains to remind us of its complex history) and rebranded it the L. Quan Check Cashing & Healing Arts Centre, which is used as a space for exhibiting. He has even broken a hole in the gallery wall to allow entry into the adjoining property. Each visitor must bend down to enter what is about a four-foot opening, and doing so makes you feel there is something special or secret inside. This gesture of bowing or bending down, signals, such as in many Asian cultural and ceremonial practices, an expression of reverence and respect. McGee subverts the exploitative nature of these check-cashing establishments by using the space to unite and honor many of his peers and exhibiting their works inside.

The L. Quan Healing Centre is all about historicity and politics. A check cashing store, now out of business, does in fact need healing. Imagine the tens of thousands of predatory loans and services that originated there and all the suffering and anxiety that has passed through those walls. McGee offers his own exorcism by bringing in his crew to burn a kind of incense there. The arts drown out whatever badness happened there. It’s perfect that many of the pieces are not identified. They don’t need to be. During each of my visits, I could overhear visitors identifying the sometimes obscure artists whose works are presented there: McGee’s father’s own work among them, as well as many other family members and friends including Margaret Kilgallen and Clare Rojas. The L. Quan Centre anchors the maturity of McGee’s exhibition by inviting visitors to gaze on young talent: “young” in the sense of mostly undiscovered. This energy is at the core of McGee’s own work. The installation is reminiscent of the Paule Anglim 1717 project a few years ago, where McGee used a storage space in Potrero Hill to showcase other artists. It’s a gesture that completes McGee’s aesthetic in a way his work can’t do alone because it has always been rooted in a cultural scene. But the L Quan show doesn’t draw attention away from McGee, if that was its intention; rather, it complements the themes of displacement and survival.


It would be impossible for an artist like McGee, who has always been a bit uncomfortable with the fame and attention his work has attained, not to use a show to also promote other artists. The nod is also to his earlier days, when the work was an affront to collectors who wanted pretty things in nice frames. They refer to a time when the younger McGee didn’t know his work would attain any success. But the beauty of it was he didn’t care. At the core, his work was always an assault on the commercialization of society, both in the proliferation of billboards hawking consumer goods to a gallery culture that panders exclusively to affluent collectors whose wealth originates in commerce. Some will say McGee became what he abhors, but the truth is the collectors and galleries had to succumb to his aesthetics and it proves that there are pockets of resistance that can hijack a dominant and tired way of thinking, and seeing. The sheer scope of this achievement cannot be understated.

The title of the show is elusive. Although the works are untitled, there is one piece made up of medium-sized fitted panels with the words “China Boo” presented. It stands relatively close to the entrance of the gallery and, importantly, is propped up by what is most likely a found cut-out wooden folk figure of Uncle Sam. That figure is himself standing on a panel which has a splotch of spray paint against an off-white surface. The word “CHINA” appears prominently against a dark glossy red background—the kind of red that can be seen all around Chinatown. The entire medium-sized piece itself has a complicated repetitive geometric pattern, which runs diagonally through the mid-section of the painting, and one of McGee’s slack-jawed faces in the upper right panel.


Most likely, the “China Boo” here is referencing urban slang one’s “boo” or “sweetheart,” that is, McGee acknowledging and celebrating his ethnicity (he is part Chinese) as well as his ascendency as an artist. An iconic figure representing America (Uncle Sam) is holding up its Chinese sweetheart, namely McGee, who has achieved artistic success in the United States. McGee has both embraced his heritage and made fun of it over the years. Here, it seems more prideful as he also pronounces his Chinese alias, “Fong” prominently on the main wall of the gallery.

But there is something more complex at play here. The “Boo” of the title could also be referencing fear or fright that the United States’s relationship with China represents our slow economic collapse. Notably here, the repeating geometric patterns in this painting have a remarkable resemblance to the parenthesis you might find on a ledger sheet, parenthesis denoting financial loses: being in the red, so to speak. American supremacy is illusory when one takes into account that in financial markets the People’s Republic of China holds 1.3 trillion dollars in US debt. The Chinese, for all the criticism we level at their foreign or environmental policies, owns much of the United States. McGee is presenting this awkward and complicated relationship in this painting. On a local level, the title may be alluding to the displacement and alienation running through the thrift store theme. It’s worth noting that San Francisco’s recently re-elected mayor is of Chinese descent at a time San Francisco is experiencing massive wealth inequality and displacement as rents skyrocket throughout the city. As one might expect, the current administration has not been without its detractors as artists and musicians struggle harder than ever to afford living in the city. Of course the mayor’s race is irrelevant to these issues, but the mayor does preside over the levers at City Hall that sets policies that directly influence these matters and is possibly, symbolically, referenced here. The endearment “boo” suddenly is referencing the fright that is very real. How many of the artists in the L. Quan Centre even live in San Francisco any longer?


This is an exceptional show in all respects. It is a subtle triumph that has wowed the many artists who have seen it. Just when they thought McGee was an elder statesman whose name was only to be invoked in order to talk about the old days, he reappears. He rides here, in front of the peloton, with ease. The sophistication and social and political commentary is complex and mature.

Celebrity doesn’t eliminate our challenges or problems, however for those as afflicted by it as McGee is, it does compel one to sort them out in public with added intensity as a result. This show is a respite from that, because it presents what McGee makes, honestly, rather than the mythologization that others crave.


Barry McGee “China Boo” at Ratio 3 runs until December 19, 2015.



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