Thirty years ago, graffiti stepped off the street to became the darling of the modern art world. With its visual diversity, and despite its defiance of those who viewed it as vandalism, New York galleries came to embrace it during the 1980s in the name of the avant garde. But as Japan’s still small-scale graffiti culture only began in the ’90s, it has only relatively recently attracted much attention in Tokyo’s art world.
But now, the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (Watari-um) in Harajuku is hosting a solo show by Barry McGee, born in 1966 in San Francisco, where he was known as “Twist,” among other aliases. Describing the big-city experience as a series of “urban ills, overstimulations, frustrations, addictions and trying to maintain a level head under the constant bombardment of advertising,” his work is characterized by dazzling colors and forms interspersed with pessimistic and melancholic motifs — especially his trademark icon of a man with a droopy, unshaven face.
Naturally, the idea of the outdoor, anti-establishment medium of graffiti being shown in the austere white cubes of an art museum (particularly one that charges an admission fee) seems like a glaring contradiction. It is also ironic that McGee’s work continues to increase in market value while his “Twist” works would only have had a devaluing effect on the residential and commercial surfaces he besmirched.
However, since graduating in painting and printmaking from San Francisco Art Institute in 1991, he has made a clear distinction between his outdoor and indoor works. Furthermore, the Watari-um is one of the few galleries in Tokyo that repeatedly makes the effort to transform its exhibition spaces with each show — in this case presenting what could be described as series of installation works inspired by “graffiti culture.”
The museum staff recommend that you start from the fourth floor and work your way down. Immediately you are struck by the large, red word “SMASHED” spray-painted across the wall and window. The rest of the room buzzes with the sound of small machinery: where some of the walls have been sprayed with paint, small, wall- mounted sculptures with mechanized arms wave spray cans to and fro, as though “guilty” of the marks that have been made on them.
This exhibition abandons the idea of the wall as a flat surface on which to hang linear displays. Framed geometric graphic paintings have been clustered together, overlapping each other. Next to them, plywood sheeting has been screwed onto the walls; this coarse detritus of the street bulges out, raw and tactile. None of the works have title cards, and introductory texts to each room’s display are nowhere to be seen. McGee may be working within the confines of a gallery space, but he has consciously rejected two of its most comfortable conventions.
The third floor is a mess of wires and VCRs, dominated by a large circular stack of TV sets displaying dozens of graphics, illustrations and streams of video footage to a soundtrack of rumbling, fuzzy beats and crashes. At this point it really hits home how well the curators have used the Watari-um’s space. With both an open balcony and a glass wall, the third floor feels like more of a mezzanine overlooking the second floor, allowing you to enjoy the audiovisual correspondence between McGee’s works in two exhibition spaces at once.
Meanwhile, the dazzle of the graphics on the TV screens is reflected in the opposite wall of the second floor, which has been entirely covered in McGee’s multicolored Op Art-style painting works.
The focus of the final, second-floor exhibition is a single sculpture that rises at the far end of the space. Standing atop an overturned van, a human tower of five men sitting on each other’s shoulders rises up, with the uppermost figure spraying the word “AMAZE” on the wall — almost reaching as far as the fourth-floor light well, through which you can see other visitors looking down at you.
The exhibition doesn’t end as you leave the museum. Make sure you cross the road to see McGee’s art back on the street, where an empty shop has been covered in his trademark faces and window- dressed from the inside with prints and photos. Likely made with permission from the landlords, this is more “street art” than “graffiti” — but it is still one of the most eye-catching visuals in Harajuku right now.
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