Barry McGee makes art out of things I cross the street to avoid. You enter this monumental, knock-out installation through the rear end of a truck turned on its side. Looking up, you see a disembodied pair of mechanized, trouser-clad legs writhing—in orgasm or agony—beneath the rails of a balcony; piles of wrecked cars occupy the gallery’s center; in the back is a filthy institutional bathroom in puke pink, where under an unwholesome, flickering neon light the mannequin of a gaunt, ashen youth stands poised to graffiti a mirror.
Did I fail to mention the rows of television monitors blinking graphics in op-art colors and archival footage of subway trains and vandals; the eye-popping psychedelic wallpaper; the bottles that once held cheap pints of booze, now painted with the faces of sad-sack men similarly emptied of spirits; and the rising smoke that, every so often, burns the eyes and suffocates? It can take a while to notice many of these things, yet McGee’s over-the-top style—combing layers of visual and aural cacophony—also has the curious effect of forcing you to look more closely, trying to decipher some larger meaning in this vast graveyard of misspent youth and dashed expectations.
That’s not to say it isn’t cheerful. Here and there, McGee has placed pseudo-primitive wooden sculptures attached to motors that make them look as if they’re spray-painting the wall; clearly, he wants to link graffiti and related forms of street culture with the powerful social impulses of tribal art. Certainly it’s more fun (at least for mild-mannered art critics like myself) to view this stuff in a gallery setting than to walk down the blocks where it’s really happening. The frisson it supplies carries more than a whiff of class voyeurism. But McGee clearly knows that of which he speaks; as I emerged from his wild art, the now staid streets of Soho (once so dark and scary) paled by comparison.