Over the years, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston has hosted shows by different graffiti artists, most notably Shepard Fairey and Os Gemeos. Their latest exhibit in this genre is from San Francisco-based Barry McGee, who got his start in the late 80's under the tag name "Twist."
Last Friday night I attended the Opening Night reception for McGee's new show, which included a cocktail party in the ICA lobby (a beautiful space overlooking the Boston Harbor) followed by a talk with the artist and a 20 year survey of his work.
The talk was bizarre - McGee is painfully shy and was visibly uncomfortable being in the spotlight. He repeatedly asked for the lights to be turned down (taking the focus off of him) and encouraged audience members to talk so that he wouldn't have to. I found this so interesting because his work is very bold, infused with bright colors, hard lines, and a fair amount of social commentary/activism. But I guess the man prefers to stay in the shadows, letting his paint cans do the talking.
McGee admits that now that he's 46 and a father he has lost interest in tagging, but continues to bring urban installations into art spaces and galleries. From the ICA write up:
"At once humorous, political, and difficult (especially for those who see private property as an inalienable right), his art underscores the complexities of life in early twenty-first-century America, a country in the midst of wars, a financial crisis, unemployment, class stratification, and the ever-cheerful exhortation to keep consuming."
He's decidedly anti-consumerism and anti-establishment, remarking,
“If I live in an urban center — in a city — with constant advertising, I feel like I have every right to partake also. I don’t feel like it should be limited to corporations that can buy ad space. I just always assume that anything written on the wall was the authentic thing to me. The real voice.”
The market value of his work rose considerably after it was included in the 2001 Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art show in Italy. Today, much of his San Francisco street art has been stolen (although I did hear in his recent NPR interview that some work can still be found in and around Boston). And he just created a new [sanctioned] piece on the back of the House of Blues building while he was in town last week.
Unlike other cities that are known for their graffiti - areas of Buenos Aires, Old San Juan, San Francisco, and Venice Beach come to mind - Boston doesn't have much elaborate street art. Just last month, local artist Cyrille Conan was hired to paint a 14'x17' mural on the old Boston Herald building in the South End, but it was purely to drive publicity of a new mixed-use housing and commercial complex (dubbed The Ink Block) that is going up there. The Herald building - along with Conan's work - was demolished just a few weeks later (but not before I captured the shot below).
The best-kept graffiti secret in the city might be at my office. We have several walls that were painted years ago by some local teens who got caught tagging and were sentenced to community service - which included coming in to our space and putting their talent to good use. Take a look: