Aesthetics: Barry McGee

An artist’s collection of reference materials, cosmic debris, and original physical graffiti.

Light / Dark


If there’s a self-portrait in Barry McGee’s new book, Reproduction, it’s the photograph of a van with its rear doors wide open, a hodgepodge of surfboards stuffed inside. They’re beaten up, browned, and yellowed—vintage tankers of the rider-not-hanger variety. They could be en route to a gallery or museum, part of one of Barry’s maximalist installations. But they could just as well be en route to the water. 

Barry’s surfing is as singular and unmistakable as his artwork. He wears slick black wetsuits and rides the same boards he collects and uses in his pieces, often Renny Yaters or Joe Quiggs. A regularfoot, his signature move is a frozen cross-step, right foot forward of left. It’s balletic but manly, a repose of sorts, though it’s hard to say if he’s just come out of some big moment or is anticipating one about to happen. It’s a nod to the spaces in between. It’s its own space in between. 

I’ve met great surfers. I’ve met great artists. Many of the former are deeply in their bodies, but not exactly deep thinkers. And many of the latter are titanic in mind, but by no means Baryshnikovian in body. Barry is the highest melding of these two sometimes very incongruous things that I’ve ever encountered. On a wave, you can almost see his expressive hands drawing, painting, constructing. And likewise in his studio: He’ll shuffle, cross-step, dance across the canvas the way he does his 10’6″ Quigg. He’s amphibious. It’s a graceful, seamless, “everything is art, even the way you make your toast in the morning” way of moving through the world. 

Reproduction is the first book to compile Barry’s previously unseen photographic practice. “Captured at all hours and around the world with whatever camera is at hand, [his] images are immediate, casual, intimate, and anarchic all at once,” reads a statement from Aperture, the edition’s publisher. 

Jeff Boyd, Rincon, on-rail bottom turn, photographed by Steve Bissell. Yes! I’m still obsessed with this image every time I look at it.  

“There are old family photos in it, and then photos that friends have taken,” Barry told me. “You know when there’s a photo so good that you know you can never take it, and your friend takes it, and you love it so much you want it in your book?” 

We were gathered in the kitchen of his Marin County home, Barry seated at the table, the book in front of him, as I looked over his shoulder. He explained that the photographers are all credited, and that he was mostly concerned with where the photographs would sit in the sequence and layout of the book. I asked if Reproduction felt like an extension of the paintings, drawings, zines, and installations for which he is so well known. 

I visited Herbie Fletcher, and he was just opening drawers and there were piles of photos all stuck together with tape and art and his whole family history. That’s our history—the American history of surfing— sitting in Herbie’s drawers. 

“No,” he said. “It feels super awkward revealing photos. There are many professional photographers that are amazing that I’ve looked up to my entire life, and so just having a photography book is really intimidating.” 

I first met Barry back in the early 1990s. A graffiti artist, his tag— Twist—was sprayed atop many vertiginously tall buildings in his native San Francisco. He would become closely associated with SF’s Mission School—an art movement of the ’90s and early 2000s influenced by murals and urban folk art, rendered with nontraditional materials and found objects. As his art practice expanded, so did his reputation. He transitioned seamlessly from the streets to galleries and museums, but his heart always seemed to be up on some precarious ledge, spray can in hand. 

“People ponder how McGee simultaneously keeps his feet in both the street and the fine-arts worlds,” says artist Craig Stecyk, who has known Barry for decades. “But there’s only one universe, and, within it, times, tastes, and cultural mores are constantly morphing. Today’s aerosol-glyphed treatise on an underpass wall is tomorrow’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. None of that matters to la gente, because by the time the harbingers of haute art winnow their way through the cultural gauntlet, people such as Ray Fong, B. Vernon, P. Kin, Twist, and Lydia Fong [Barry’s aliases], they will all be up, out, and long gone.” 

“Externally, Barry’s like the quintessential Zen master,” says artist and curator Aaron Rose, who showed Barry’s work at New York’s Alleged Gallery in the ’90s. “If you look at his work, and the repetitiveness of his work, and the intricacy, and the pattern, and his brush style and all of that, it’s all quite elegant and considered. But then inside of that is one of the most raging animals I’ve ever met. Angry, wild, pissed, punk—like the exact opposite [of his work]. I don’t know how he does it, because it’s not easy to have those two dueling characteristics. I’ve known a lot of graffiti guys over the years—a lot of real angry ones, too. And Barry was way angrier than anyone I’ve ever met.” 

“He’s pretty much either surfing or making art or eating, and potentially eating and making art at the same time,” says artist Thomas Campbell, who featured Barry in his films The Seedling and Sprout. “That’s pretty much all he does. If you sit down with him at his kitchen table, he’s going to be drawing. I find it really fascinating, the scale he can work at. He can work from something like 2 inches by 2 inches to 200 feet by 50 feet and nail it. I just feel like he’s a true master—on the level of Picasso or Warhol, in that stratosphere.” 

Flipping through the book, Barry stopped on a page. “I like this photo,” he said of a pickup truck stacked haphazardly with boxes and what looks like trash. “The colors, the shapes.” 

There’s a lot of trash in Reproduction: beer cans, rusted chains, car parts, discarded water bottles, mattresses, cans of spray paint. But through Barry’s lens it becomes beautiful. There’s also a lot of graffiti and graffiti artists. You get the sense that he’s paying tribute to the world from whence he came. 

“This completes the book,” he said of a black-and-white photo by Steve Bissell of Jeff Boyd laying down a ferocious bottom turn at Rincon. Boyd’s front arm and hand aim forward. His rail is buried deep. His fin is nearly popping out. The lines—of wave, body, and board—are balanced, harmonious. “That’s what I want to do,” he continued. “It’s a moment in time—the placement, the turn, everything. Something I can’t do that I want to do.”

[Feature Image Caption: Installation of framed photos, drawings, and ephemera that I collected from the ’90s to the 2000s or something, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.]