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Last year, the hip look on Hester Street was nerdy skateboard art, and the coolest collectors were wearing Phil Frost. This season belongs to a 33-year-old California dreamer named Barry McGee, whose first solo New York show has generated the kind of buzz that signals the arrival of a New Real Thing. A Times review last week placed him in the company of Soho champs like Carl Andre and David Salle, as if to situate this newcomer in the proper "house."
But no canonical scheme can account for the mob of young people who jammed Deitch Projects at McGee's opening on March 20. As they sipped Thunderbird to a mariachi band, the artist who had labored for two weeks on this installation was nowhere in sight. "I get sort of shy going to the gallery," McGee explains, sitting at the kitchen table of the apartment his dealer rented for him. "This is my first commercial gallery, and it's definitely I don't know. I don't know the experience."
San Francisco, where McGee lives, is a very different place to make art. Nonprofit spaces are much more prominent than in New York, and when it comes to career building, all eyes face elsewhere. But this relative obscurity is a terrific incubator has been since the days of the Beats and it's enabled McGee to move easily from street to art space and back again. It's also kept him mercifully unaware of the art economy. "The whole formula of being a working artist, I don't know how that works. I don't know the idea of making a canvas, putting it up in a white gallery. I guess I have an issue with something being cherished and preserved."
The heart of his current show is an assortment of drawings, scrawlings, painted booze bottles, stripped-down spray-paint cans, and other "evidence" some of it inscribed on old metal-press plates that occupy an entire wall. The effect is like entering an imagination that resembles a long-shuttered industrial plant. It's McGee's attempt to reprazent.
He's the proverbial phantom artist, refusing to show his face in photographs, keeping what matters to himself. Still, when it comes to site-specific art, he's quite clear: "Outdoor is outdoor, and indoor is indoor" and the balance between these environments must be maintained. "Every time I do something indoors I have to do something 100 percent outdoors," he says. "I'm constantly aware of how I fit in the streets." If anything, the market momentum has spurred McGee on to more brazen tagging after all, how could he not write in New York, the Jerusalem of jot? The kitchen table where he's sitting is strewn with name tags that contain his nom de graf: TWIST. "I hold my graffiti dear to me," he insists. "It's taught me everything I know."
McGee's reputation on the graf-vine is no doubt why his opening drew such an unusual crowd. In this milieu, you don't need p.r., just "all respect," and once it's bestowed, word travels remarkably far. After 25 years of active repression, graffiti has not only endured but evolved into an international movement with thousands of devotees. In San Francisco, McGee reports, there's vegan and straight-edge (no drugs) graf alongside throw-ups inspired by Diego Rivera. But in New York, everything seems prefigured and restricted. "There are hardly any queer kids or female writers here," McGee notes. "It's definitely male-centric, almost like a contact sport, and it's a lot more rigid." This combative intensity can be hard for a California dreamer to take. "I can't relax here," McGee confides. "Every time I go out in the street, it's like " and here he makes his face into The Scream.
Still, the trip to Babylon was worth it when McGee looked at the gallery's registry book and found the tag PHASE 2. "I was honored," he says. Of course, PHASE 2 was not among the artists mentioned by the Times in connection with McGee. To include graffiti in the cultural canon would shatter the presumption of criminality that has kept it apart from the mainstream. What's more, it would broach the rarely asked question of whether our standard for judging art is founded on truth and beauty or on class and caste.
In order to break into the art world, a writer graced with genius would still have to master the iconography of upscale postmodernism, and most young artists who make the grade these days are art-schooled and white. Jean-Michel Basquiat broke the code, but he came along at a moment in the 1980s when artists were rewarded for reaching out to cultural traditions beyond the pomo pale. In the years since Basquiat's death, the boundaries have largely been restored, with predictable results: the New York scene is lagging behind European competitors. What makes McGee's work so invigorating is that it draws from within and beyond the parameters of American art almost indiscriminately. In this respect, he's a very political artist, but not a polemical one. By keeping it real, he also makes it new.