San Francisco Counterculture Perennials Take Chelsea

Natasha Boas

SRL, Fanuc Robot Arm (view 2), 1992, steel, aluminum, HD television, Fanuc RT3 robot, electronics, 92 x 72 x 60 in., 233.7 x 182.9 x 152.4 cm, CNON 59.723_Pierre Le Hors
SRL's Fanuc Robot Arm (view 2), 1992. Courtesy of the artist and Marlborough Chelsea.

San Francisco enfants terribles artists Mark Pauline, who works under the name of Survival Research Laboratories, and Barry McGee have concurrent shows in adjacent galleries in Chelsea. Colliding in the New York bomb cyclone during installation week, unaware that they were exhibiting at the same time, the perennially transgressive artists attempted to connect their shows by tunneling a hole between the venues, and were quickly prohibited by institutional bureaucracy—something the 80s (SRL) and 90s (Mission School graffiti) globally renowned outlaw art icons are not only familiar with but are still actively engaged in as part of their art practice: breaking the rules well into mid-careers.

Barry McGee’s installation at Barry McGee. Photo by Brian Buckley courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

Curatorially speaking, both McGee and Pauline’s bodies of work pose endless problems with regards to gallery exhibition-making and this is why showing their work “inside” still gives us such a rush. The two shows offer nothing like the vast elegant quasi-empty blue-chip gallery spaces that populate Chelsea—with their white cube aesthetics and heavily entrenched modernist habits. Instead, in these two shows, we are excitingly reminded of other positions the art-maker and the art spectator can occupy.

Barry McGee’s show is crammed to the ceiling (so important to look up to catch the best paintings), bursting with works to the point that the gallery registrar has lost count and given up on a comprehensive checklist. Barry texts me while I write this “Natasha: I just can’t stop bringing stuff into my studio from the street. The best is always outside. There is a little of everyone I love in this show.” From reclaimed velvet kitsch paintings, to original street signs, over a hundred stacked surfboards, to his fellow Mission School artists 90s work Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, to new paintings by Peter Grey Hurley and Clare Rojas and snapshot photographs of artist friends such as Eddie Martinez (showing now at The Drawing Center) and so many others… This show is one of Barry’s best shows because it is urgent, chaotic, generous and frenetic like a big wave of resistance in a sea of commerce.

SRL’s Pitching Machine (view 2), 1999-2017.

How Mark Pauline manages to get us to feel what it was like to attend one of his Survival Research Lab performances in San Francisco under the freeway in the 80s is counterintuitive, but it works! Showing SRL machines in stasis has been the biggest problem confronting commercial galleries. Yet, Pauline, who allows us to get up close-up and personal with his machines in this show offers up the experience of “what it was like” by teasing us, for example, with the moving video screen in his Fanuc Robot Arm, 1992. If in the 80s, we risked our bodies and our minds when attending SRL performances behind guard rails and police, today, we can investigate the beauty of the machines in another way—inanimate yet still indexical of potential violence, these are splendid sculptures. Their hand-made imprimatur (not artist assistants studio factory assembled) echo something like looking at Michelangelo’s work uptown at The Met, but the 21 century Bay-Area version.