It was a scene of art culture-meets-street culture that could almost have been lifted from the '80s, a few years after a celebrated Soho street writer called Samo revealed his real name, Jean-Michel Basquiat, to the Village Voice for $100 and became an instant commodity. By the time Barry McGee arrived, tardy, to his opening at the Rice University Art Gallery last week, where the glass-fronted room has been painted a spine-stiffening red, there was enough of a crowd to keep him three-deep for the rest of the night. A handful of young men had driven in from Dallas the day before to meet him. One or two attendees wore strings of used nozzles from spray paint cans around their necks. They held out black-bound sketchbooks and two-year-old copies of an interview with McGee in a magazine called 12 Ounce Prophet. They wanted not McGee's autograph, but his tag, Twist, the name he uses on walls, buses, trucks and street signs, the name that has made him famous.
Like break dancing, beatboxing and all things hip-hop, graffiti is back, and that means graffiti artists such as McGee are making their way into galleries. In April the Village Voice earnestly dubbed the San Francisco art school grad "the new real thing."
But this phenomenon is not an instant replay. Just because the art world turned away from graffiti for a decade or so doesn't mean graffiti remained in a state of arrested development. It's more sophisticated, complex and popular than ever. Tags such as Article and Next, both used by Houston graffiti writers, co-opt and mock media and advertising, and taggers read and interpret graff as if it were a community newswire service. McGee's work doesn't look anything like those old-school tangles of Carribbean color or the lithium-happy figures of Keith Haring's doodles. Instead, the gallery, which looks as if it has downed one of those minimart vitamin packs for night drivers, is decorated with McGee's trademark sad-sack, unshaven faces. As if to emphasize that the gallery wall is once again virgin territory, there are but a few tags and throw-ups (a tag is a quickly scribbled writer's name; a throw-up is the larger, balloon-lettered version).
McGee's faces, which he has drawn so many times indoors and outdoors they're beginning to look like clip art, are surprisingly anachronistic, less like what one might think of as graffiti and more like '50s cartoons of hobos or drawings from Mad magazine. Usually they are droopy, generically ethnic, urban characters -- the people you might find standing around in front of a wall of graffiti in the 'hood. But at Rice, McGee has given the largest of the faces a cowboy hat. The name of the show is "Hoss," and the cowboy seems to have something to do with McGee's romantic notion of Texas, which is about as clever as going to Ireland, say, and doing an installation called "Drunk." I know most everyone comes to Texas with visions of Bubbas and longhorn steers, but I always think artists are going to be smarter than that.
In the main gallery, McGee has at least been smart about scale. The large wall drawings and scrawls are countered by a cluster of small framed photos and sketches on one wall, and an arrangement of flask-size liquor bottles logoed with little versions of McGee's faces on another. Despite the installation's graphic pop and sizzle, the small vignettes made up of drawings and found objects make only a dispirited attempt to coalesce into anything substantial. McGee, like the skulking little man he has drawn onto a small garage-sale painting of the Rice University quad, would clearly rather be someplace else: outside, bombing walls with spray paint. So why isn't he?
Unlike a lot of other graff writers, McGee goes by his name instead of his tag for gallery shows. While the art world blurs the line between McGee the graff writer and McGee the artist, McGee himself seems to be trying to keep his tag from being contaminated by legitimacy. He'll do pieces in the art world but explain publicly that he's in it only to get money to continue his streetside work. "Every time I do something indoors I have to do something 100 percent outdoors," McGee told the Voice, which applauded him for keeping it real.
The truth is, graffiti doesn't need galleries nearly as much as galleries need graffiti. McGee can't explain why he's attaching a name to an art form dedicated to anonymity. His uncertainty manifests as a coy modesty that is, in the end, stingy. At a lecture he gave on the history of graffiti in the '90s, he flashed past slides of his own street work quickly, muttering, "I did that" and ignoring audience pleas to back up so they could see, which left me wondering why the slides were in there in the first place.
"Hoss" can't decide whether it's a museum exhibit on graffiti or an art piece that uses the graffiti vernacular. "I'd like [graffiti] to be accepted as I'm not sure exactly how I'd like it to be accepted," McGee says. In the smaller gallery room, he has set up a hokey Smithsonian-like display, presenting an apocalyptic arrangement of cans of spray paint burnished down to the bare metal, a jacket whose inside pockets are filled with spray cans, and a sign, presumably stolen, warning away taggers, who tagged it anyway, of course. More aura than information, the jacket and its accessories do nothing more than try to prove McGee has street cred, and everyone knows that those who have it don't need to prove it. In this clean, polite place where the liquor bottles are empty, the jacket plays up the graff writer's absence rather than approximating his presence.
Which, I suppose, might be part of the point -- McGee's cool nip at the hand that feeds him. In some parts of the gallery, he has even partially buffed out his own tags, approximating the handiwork of graffiti removal squads or diligent shopkeepers that's as much a part of the streetscape as graffiti itself. It's interesting that cities consider buffing less of an eyesore than graffiti, and McGee might be going for a commentary on suppression or the dogma of institutional taste. But he also uses the buffing as a cheap design element, painting a thin strip across the face of the cowboy. It feels like window dressing.
Still, "Hoss" is worth seeing, for both the graphic pleasure of the installation and for what can be gleaned about graffiti through McGee's filters. He does love the sport, and in his own muttering way he's a good advocate. "I check the health of a city by if it has graffiti or not, and if it doesn't, I think the city has some problems," McGee says.
But McGee is not a connoisseur of style as much as of subversion. At his lecture (billed as a "Fireside Chat"), he skipped over the elaborate, technically adept "productions" or "pieces" (mural-size graffiti often done on legal walls, where the owner has given permission), in favor of illegal tags and throw-ups that proclaim, in the most cursory of ways, "I'm alive." McGee likes the audacity of some kid broadcasting his or her own message as prominently as a Gap billboard, even if the message is nothing more than the kid's tag. He likes graff that pisses people off, relishing details such as the fact that writing scratched into Plexiglas is impossible to remove.
Yet for all that McGee loves the renegade thrill of graffiti, there's nothing in "Hoss" that attempts to rile or provoke. Instead, it's just cartoonsville. Graffiti on the street can stake its meaning on the act itself; graffiti in the gallery doesn't have that advantage. No wonder McGee approaches a gallery wall with only half a heart -- he misses, or dismisses, the notion that subversion might be possible even when you're not breaking the law.
"Hoss" is on view at the Rice University Art Gallery,6100 South Main, (713)527-6069, through October 24
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events