One More Thing
A six-by-eight foot cube of thin, sagging plywood boards forms the entryway to Barry McGee’s sprawling exhibition One More Thing at the cavernous Deitch Projects space on Wooster Street. Stepping into an installation of riotous color and noise through the door in the far right corner, you look back over your shoulder to discover that you have just emerged from a crappy-looking truck turned over on its side. This isn’t McGee’s first installation to begin with a scene of urban blight embodied in an overturned, unmarked, graffiti covered vehicle of the sort you assume is carrying on business you don’t want to know about. When he placed a crashed truck in front of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco for an exhibition in 2000, so many passersby called the cops to report an accident that the police department demanded that the piece be removed. But whereas that truck contained an assemblage of video monitors pulsing with lights and color like a clubhouse hideout, at Detich, McGee’s truck acts as a portal into the artist’s romantic world of creative transgression and dilapidated coolness.
First presented in 2004 at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, One More Thing is an evolving installation including drawing, video, sculpture, and just pure stuff. There is a pile up of rusted, mostly windowless vans; monochromes of drab maroon, white, brown, and gray covered in illegibly scrawled looping tags. Inside the flipped red van at the bottom of the pile is a bank of outmoded televisions with wide white plastic edges playing psychedelic Escher-esque patters to a soundtrack of pulsing electronic noise. More obsolete-looking TVs stacked in a five-foot high column play snippets of 1970s street scenes and animated noise. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with mid-century modern style geometric patterned panels, each pairing three complimentary contrasting colors—lime green, brown, and white, teal, pink, and red—into optically illusions of kitschy nostalgia. Graffiti fills the few white spaces left on the walls. There is a skillful portrait of Dick Cheney with SMASH THE STATE scrawled in red spray paint across his sinister smile, while the word AMAZE appears at the top of a towering human ladder of mannequins in baggy shorts and hoodies.
In the back corner of the gallery, a small doorway is built into a hut-like structure along one wall. Inside, the dark walls are cover in more tags and a hole in the floor has a ladder sticking out. Those brave enough to squeeze down into the narrow space are released into a quite room with mellow light blue walls that are partially covered with ball-point pen drawings on brown napkins hung edge to edge, a small primitive-kitsch statute with a mechanized arm spray painting, a large round painting of a cartoonish face with a long sad tear-drop of a nose, a tangle of wires, and a pile of obsolete VCRs decorated with the colorful geometries of the walls above. The drawings are intricate and detailed—faces, nudes, and trees in the style of 1950s tattoos, and the obsessive mass tempers the initial manic energy above. The feeling of an intimate society of loner artists is continued in the drawings and photographs installed in the mezzanine space where line drawings of alternately sad and angry faces are interspersed with photos of McGee and his friends tagging and hanging out.
Since he began showing work in art galleries and museums in the late 1990s, McGee’s work is often discussed in terms of what the Deitch press release touts as “the vitality and chaos of the street,” and the tension inherent in displaying this work in the rarified gallery and museum spaces of contemporary art. And yet what is most striking about One More Thing is the way McGee’s accumulations—the towering pile of unmarked vans, the column of TVs, the archive of napkin drawings and jumble of VCRs—deploy a key strategy of modernism with twenty-first century urban detritus. Think of Arman’s accumulations of paint tubes, John Chamberlain’s piles of cars, even Sophie Calle’s birthday presents; all have a melancholic quality stemming from the way ordinary objects at once define us and are simultaneously useless or obsolete once taken out of context. McGee’s accumulations are similar: his cars are smashed, his TVs seem on the fritz, or at least technologically backwards, his drawings on napkins seem certain to be accidentally thrown away. And it is this gentle fragility of McGee’s post-industrial urban artist persona that is tucked away inside the chaotic energy of the show. In an installation inside an overturned truck, there is a gritty gas station or nightclub bathroom covered in tags. A mannequin of a single skinny young man in a street punk uniform stands at the sinks, spray-painting his own tag, AMAZE, on the mirror; his lonely figure seems vulnerable, and yet in the act of tagging, there is a sense of belonging, a sense of an outsider community of wanders who have left their names and will recognize the traces of their friends.