Graffiti art is a phenomenon almost as old a civilization itself. Uncovered Roman ruins reveal a rich history of the stuff in the ancient world and, although most inscriptions were names or advertisements for prostitution, some was poetic musings and crude artwork. The modern movement began in New York City in the late ’60s and brought a new, artistically skilled element to the scribbles and scrawls of graffiti styles past. As the decades passed, the styles got better and ultimately more accepted in the artistic community, and by the late ’70s many graffiti artists in the city began selling their work to the legitimate art world through galleries and exhibits.
One such graffiti artist, Barry McGee, has spent the better part of three decades in the streets of San Francisco painting his moniker, TWIST, as well as giant heads and images of San Francisco’s Mission district. McGee is one of the graffiti artists showing at the Big Sad exhibition at the Riverside Art Museum. McGee landed himself at the center of a controversy when he designed a caricature of himself as an eight-year-old boy, under the name Ray Fong. McGee, who is half Chinese, depicted himself with squinty eyes, requisite bowl cut and buck teeth, recalling for many Asian Americans face of a bygone racist age.
Often aligned with the Mission School of artists—a label that some scholars reject due to it’s geographic specificity—McGee’s work stands as an insightful dissertation on the effects of an over-stimulating, alienating urban experience. In the tradition of graffiti artists past, McGee throws serious questions at traditional art world concepts and his work inevitably takes on political and social undertones.
Another graffiti artist exhibiting is Clare Rojas, who covers everything from traditional European art to folk images, often using the work as a dialogue on gender relations and gender role reversal. She uses vibrant colors on a flat space, with murals and images from the streets of San Francisco inspiring her work. Together with McGee, these two artists effectively interact with the audience in a gallery setting, rather than just hanging their graffiti art up on the gallery wall.
The museum isn’t entirely sure what the pair will be bringing to exhibit, save for some painted surfboards and banjos—and that Rojas, under the pseudonym Peggy Honeywell, will be performing acoustic folk songs as gallery patrons ogle her artwork.
“We don’t know much about what the exhibit will look like,” says Lee Tussman, who curates the Big Sad exhibit, along with two other exhibits that include the post-psychedelic images of Dan Nguyen and John Roach, and the punk-inspired images of the legendary Raymond Pettibon, who was known for his contributions to Los Angeles’s early punk aesthetic.
“This exhibit combines a lot of different things from traditional to abstract,” Tussman says. The exhibit isn’t plowing any new ground, but, “it’s not just about hipsters coming to see a hipster exhibit, either. It’s about exposing this kind of work to a much wider audience who wouldn’t normally go to something like this. I’m really excited by it because I’m passionate about these artists, not just on a professional level, but on a personal level as well.”
The Big Sad at the Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 684-7111; www.riversideartmuseum.org. Opening reception, Sun. 4PM