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Graffiti artist Barry McGee brings streets smarts to his latest gallery show

By Paul Laster

Although Barry McGee is a graduate of San Francisco Art Institute, he made a name for himself as a teenage street artist whose tag became a familiar sight in the City by the Bay. By the mid-’90s, his paintings and drawings—populated with hobos, misfits and bold graphic patterns—were appearing in New York galleries like the Drawing Center and Deitch Projects. In 2013 he joined Chelsea’s Cheim & Read, where he’s about to open a solo show of drawings, paintings and sculptures. The artist speaks to Time Out New York about his graffiti roots and how they’ve affected his career.

Photograph: Courtesy Cheim & Read

When did you start making art?
I’ve been making it continuously since I was a kid.

Photograph: Courtesy Cheim & Read

And working on the streets?
I started in high school, as part of this fringe group of straggly kids trying to figure out how to beat the system.

Photograph: Courtesy Cheim & Read

Do you still consider yourself a street artist?
No. I’m just someone who used to do graffiti. I never felt that there was any art to it, but on the other hand, that’s what I always liked about tagging—that and the fact that there’s a freedom to it, and that it can really piss people off. Art can do that too, though in a more mannered way. Graffiti is a separate universe from the art world.

Photograph: Courtesy Cheim & Read

So you don’t do that anymore.
Well, I did some tagging recently, but it was a special opportunity, so I took advantage of it. It’s hard to explain, because it’s automatic for me, like a hand memory. It felt good to do, though I worked anonymously, so no one would know that I did it.

Photograph: Courtesy Cheim & Read

Are you concerned with having street cred or are you beyond that now?
I don’t worry about that kind of stuff anymore. I’ve sold out so many times in so many people’s eyes, including my own. Some of the things I’ve done were sacrifices to keep my work going. Then I tried pretending like they never happened, but that’s impossible in this day and age. Everything gets smeared all over the internet.

Photograph: Courtesy Cheim & Read

But generally, you’ve seemed comfortable with crossing over from street art to showing in galleries, no?
Sort of. I know that working on the street—when you do it right—gets the job done. But when things go into a commercial gallery, there’s a whole other set of rules, which has something to do with ownership and exchange of money and things like that. Sometimes I feel like I should work with it and sometimes I feel like working against it.

Photograph: Courtesy Cheim & Read

Does your latest exhibition represent the former or the latter?
I don’t know. I can only say that it will either work or not work. I never know how my pieces will hang together. I just bring all of the elements into a space and see what I can pull off. I like that pressure of whether a show could either be a flop or a success, whatever being a success means. I guess I’ll find out when it’s up.

Barry McGee’s work is on view at Cheim & Read through Feb 17


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