By Kendall George, February 20, 2013

Barry McGee. Untitled, 1996. Mixed media. Image via SFMOMA.

In 1996 Barry McGee’s “Untitled” was installed at SFMOMA’s Artists Gallery as a 200-piece tessellation of framed ballpoint drawings on napkins of burn out dudes. Each time McGee has re-installed the piece, he’s come to the museum in flooded Dickies and t-shirt with a plastic bag full of new pieces: paintings and collages with found material in 1998, color photographs in 2004, precise geometric designs painted on laminate board, and fluorescent red paper so intense it hurts to look at in 2009. It was a registrar’s nightmare: he’d incorporate new pieces into the hundreds already accessioned straight from the bag. It was impossible to keep track of “Untitled” by its configuration because the linear instillation in 1996 oozed into a slug-shape, before it absorbed too many pieces and bulged out from the wall. McGee is not precious with his work, shrugging when a picture fell to the floor during installation, and seems to regard the piece like a series of facts that have since been disproven.

Barry McGee. Untitled, 1996/ 1998 instillation. Mixed media. Image via SFMOMA.

The reverence given to art objects in a museum isn’t quite applicable to Barry McGee’s work; it wasn’t created as a fine art object, and to treat it as such is tone deaf, but necessary for its longevity. He made an evolving vignette of San Francisco’s chaos. When a co-worker told McGee that I’d been conserving hundreds of his pieces, he smiled sheepishly and said “I’m sorry.”

Barry McGee. Untitled, 1996/ 2004 instillation. Mixed media. Image via SFMOMA.

McGee, fellow Mission Schooler Chris Johanson, and Laurie Reid—all SECA award winners—were given the freedom to collaborate on new work in the City College of San Francisco Art Gallery. Reid might seem like an odd third, but her watery drops of paint on paper are as imperfect as McGee’s whiteout pen drawings, and Johanson’s recycled paint. They aren’t trying to make something precious; they are about making something, anything, for the sake of making something, anything.

Barry McGee, Untitled, 1996/ 2009 installation. Mixed media. Image via SFMOMA.

(Almost) Free Formed: Celebrating Old Days and Hoping for New Times at CCSF: Chris Johanson, Barry McGee, and Laurie Reid” opens Thursday, February 21, at the City College Art Gallery. The show will be on view through March 20, 2013.