Meeting Barry McGee is the exact opposite of experiencing his art exhibitions. In person, he’s quiet, attentive and acutely focused on the conversation. He notices small details and often compliments you on the simplest things. His humble nature and youthful charm make you wonder how someone so effortlessly relaxed can make such visually jarring art. Unlike his easy-going demeanor, his exhibitions engulf their settings with a myriad of objects. One doesn’t see a McGee show so much as experience it. The viewer is left to consider a lot; surfboards stacked ninety high, shelves and pedestals lined with ceramic plates and vessels, and countless patterns and faces painted in all sizes on panels arranged into boil-like shapes that appear to burst at the seams. Everything seems to come together and fall apart at once, much like the world in which we live.
— Chris Perez, San Francisco, California 2018
Scott A. Sant’Angelo (SAS) — Your recent solo show at New York’s Cheim & Read Gallery looked great. How much time does it take you to pull together the work for a gallery show of this magnitude? How did it go? What was the response?
Barry McGee (BM) — I think around three to four months or so and I used some things from other shows that I lumped in there to try and make sure it felt full enough. I like the show and how it looked in the space and it was special with the weather that evening. There was a snow storm that affected the city and made getting around difficult but people still showed up despite that.
SAS — In the studio, what’s your personal creative process? Do you come in with new ideas to try? Or, do you just play around until you come up with a creative direction?
BM — I layer out a lot of work that I have in the studio then things start to take shape organically little by little with what I have in front of me. The pressure of deadlines and timing helps push through the process. It can be loose to start and then get refined as timing becomes an issue.
SAS — Do you feel more creative when you have a loose or tight deadline?
BM — (Laughs) Well, maybe, no deadlines at all.
SAS — I always feel the more time I have I tend to overthink things and also while working with other artists. I think a quicker deadline spurs a rapid sort of creativity that can be efficient and beneficial.
BM — That’s true. I like deadlines but then I hate deadlines.
SAS — Deadlines are like rules.
BM — (Laughs) Exactly.
SAS — How did growing up and living in San Francisco inspire your work over the years?
BM — It just seems broken down and it always has been as long as I can remember, but now more so than ever. There just always seems to be something major broken that everyone can feel and see. It’s for sure the most hectic that I have ever seen San Francisco. It’s odd considering there’s such an abundance of wealth here. Not sure if that answered the question but I guess the energy of the city is something that I like.
SAS — I know that surfing is a big part of your life and personal lifestyle, what do you love most about it? How does surfing influence your work?
BM — For me, I like not being attached to anything, that’s it, nothing but that moment, free off the land a couple hundred yards.
SAS — No deadlines.
BM— (Laughs) No, they are still there but I love being in that environment and the feeling. I usually go in the morning and it’s great. I paddled out this morning and I was sitting there with dolphins and the weather was warm, even in the morning.
SAS — I know that you’re a bit of a hoarder or “collector.” What do you like to collect? Why do you collect?
BM — Who me? Anything really — surfboards and shoes for sure. I have the ones you’re wearing in the mid-top style, I have too many really. The surfboards gathering is turning into another project right now.
SAS — Scooters?
BM — I’m over that; I needed to stop that for sure.
SAS — Since we’re mentioning scooters, mutual friend Damon Way knew of this piece and wanted us to ask a question — Given the option to choose your preference and be committed to it indefinitely from a daily rider perspective, Vespa or Lambretta?
BM — (Laughs) Neither, a ten-speed bicycle for sure would be much more reliable.
SAS — No, you have to choose one or the other.
BM — (Laughs) A Vespa bicycle.
SAS — Having started your career working primarily on the street, eventually moving into galleries and museums, what advice would you give to younger artists looking to establish themselves?
BM — Well, for sure a good work ethic, that’s the obvious answer. Actually, there’s a myth that I started my career on the street which isn’t true. There was never any preconceived notion of starting a so-called “career” while doing graffiti. Graffiti was, and still is, fascinating to me as an illegal act done on the streets. It was never a career move.
SAS — Is there something that you believe in and would help promote or make others aware of?
BM— The resistance for sure. A general resistance. Some type of energy on the street resisting what’s going on. Just more, I don’t know, I’m always surprised when people are not more upset about things. Does that answer the question? Maybe the best way is not to be upset though. Being aware. I had this teacher in city college in the 1980s who challenged us to be vegetarian, he also challenged us to read this book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television which was obvious with the title but we were asked to try it. I’m great with restrictions with things that waste time. I could and do waste my time with other things. But I would say being aware.
SAS — Let’s be more efficient with our time so we can be more efficient in wasting time.
BM — Exactly.
SAS — What do you think about being at this place in your career, I guess you would call that “mid-career”? How does it feel to be labeled mid-career, and does that influence your outlook on your work?
BM — Mid-career is great, there is a bit of history with your work so you can swing wildly and present ideas that could seem half-baked and people might receive them as fully done and yeah, I like that, there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
SAS — You don’t feel that you’re pressured as much?
BM — No, not at all, for me I can see things a lot more clearly. The view is much more clear.
SAS — That’s why I’m asking, did you ever feel you had anything to prove as an artist? Or did you just want to create work that you wanted and did not think so much about this aspect?
BM — Well, there’s a whole very completive side to art that I have also in me which comes over from graffiti as it’s very competitive. People don’t like to talk about it in the art world but it’s very competitive too in some weird way.
SAS — It seems like most creative fields have this also, music — what label are you on, what carries more prestigious, or film — what role did you miss out on or take away from another actor?
BM — Exactly.
Chris Perez (McGee’s Gallerist) — Well, most creative fields are based and driven by ego right?
CP — When you were younger did you ever feel like you had please other people with what you were making? Do you feel that less so now?
BM — Art is always about pleasing someone, even all through school, it was about pleasing the teachers or anyone, you know? If I couldn’t figure out the math problems I would always draw something extravagant on the side to distract them.
SAS — Nobody wants to feel like they are letting someone down.
BM — No, not at all — so I would have these really complex mathematical visual bullshit questions and I just drew to escape it. You know the “cool kids” in school knew I could draw so I drew for them too. It’s a weird thing to think about now, but it was a tool I had for sure and once you get the “high” from their praise, you want more and more of it. It becomes intoxicating.
SAS — What a great afternoon. Thank you so much for allowing us into your space.
BM — No, thank you. Of course, anytime.
You can purchase a copy of the printed issue here.
Introduction by Chris Perez
Interview by Scott A. Sant’Angelo
Photography by Alessandro Casagrande, Scott A. Sant’Angelo & Chris Perez