Art

Barry McGee: Painting outside the lines

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

These should be outside, not in here,” says artist Barry McGee. He quickly and deliberately picks out some sketches that have been donated by friends to the Perrotin gallery project space in response to his solo show “Potato Sack Body.” “What happens on the street stays on the street, right?” he says to me conspiratorially, although we’ve never met.

A stray lick of hair hangs lankly from McGee’s forehead and there is a hint of a mustache on his upper lip. He looks both harried and slightly out of it. I get the impression that his next words will be something like, “You’ll never take me alive, copper.”

McGee moves a box of dog-eared magazines from a corner to the center of the room. “These should be here. It’s some stuff on anarchism. Are you interested in anarchy?,” he asks. “Very much” I say, and then introduce myself and ask if he has time to chat.

His tall, elegant handler makes a face like she’s just sucked a liter of lemon juice through the world’s thinnest straw. “We’ve got no time for an interview, we’re very busy,” she says. “Wherever he goes, someone stops him and they want a photograph or an interview. I just want to make sure that Barry gets to enjoy his last day in a country he loves.”

“Are you the potato sack body?” I ask.

Earlier, while looking around the show, I had asked one of the gallery staff about an installation of fluorescent ’70s-style lettering. She said she wasn’t sure what all the letters meant, but the “PSB” in the middle was from the title of the exhibition. While setting up the show McGee’s handler had been working so hard that she said at one point that she couldn’t get her “potato sack body” up out of her chair because she was so tired.

Other instances of lettering in the exhibition are more open to deciphering: “KFJC 89.7” appears on a small painting in another room, for example. KFJC is the radio station of Foothill College in California. The tag line on its website is “Radio that’s weirder than you, but not by much.”

Mostly the show is filled with patches of painted geometric patterns. One of them looks a lot like the design stenciled on the glass shelves of Tokyo’s Hibiya Line metro carriages. There are also some lumpy earthenware objects, a couple of motorized wooden kinetic pieces that mix the vernacular practices of tribal sculpture and graffiti, photographic snapshots and Philip Guston-inspired disembodied heads, which have been painted with the precision of a miniaturist.

The show can be enjoyed as a semi-abstract display of shapes and colors, but there are also cryptic artifacts, notations and visual references. If you lived through the ’60s and ’70s, the overall design and color palette will remind you that those decades were the best, and worst, of times.

This collection of fragments appears both randomly assembled and carefully composed. The success of “Potato Sack Body” is how McGee manages to defy the formality and luxury commodification of the commercial gallery space, and yet is also freakingly precise in how he does it.

Before McGee’s handler gets him out of the door, the artist asks, “So how was the exhibition, OK?” I don’t answer. In truth, at this point, it’s a toss-up as to which has been more exhilarating, the work — which is magic — or the slightly farcical art world encounter. In response to my speechlessness McGee says, “OK, how about this; I’m dead inside.”

“Potato Sack Body” at Perrotin in Roppongi, Tokyo, is free and runs through March 28. For more information, visit www.perrotin.com.

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