FIRST LOOK | “ENERGY THAT IS ALL AROUND: MISSION SCHOOL” AT NYU

April 24, 2014  |  art

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Running Juxtapoz magazine in San Francisco in the 1990s, the memories of seeing Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen moving around the city together, tagging and stickering as they went are as still as clear as yesterday. Back then, before the term "street art" existed,  there really was no name for the art movement they and contemporaries like Alicia McCarthy, Ruby Neri, and Chris Johanson were a part of. It's now known retroactively (and loosely) as the "Mission School," which is the subject of the current show Energy That is All Around at NYU's Grey Gallery.

Turning their backs on the Bay Area dot-com boom—which brought to the neighborhood an influx of young professionals, upscale shops, chic restaurants, and eviction threats—these artists embraced street aesthetics and lowbrow visual culture such as cartoons, signage, and folk art. All made and promoted graffiti; all had tagging names. All moved easily between representation and abstraction, the street and the studio, and worked in various media including painting, sculpture, drawing, collage, and installation. Although each developed a distinct artistic style and philosophy, they all were drawn to the radical and the political. Not surprisingly, all took inspiration from Bay Area Figuration, the Beats, Funk art, and Punk. By 2002, these high-octane and previously obscure artists were retroactively dubbed the Mission School by critic Glen Helfand.

The Mission School, however, is less a movement than an ethos. Nor does this show purport to be a definitive survey. Instead it focuses on rarely seen early work by five key Mission School practitioners. Johanson, Kilgallen, McCarthy, McGee, and Neri often collaborated and showed their work in the same alternative venues like SF's legendary Luggage Store Gallery. Moreover their art evokes a paradox: while it appears to be slapdash and unfinished, it is actually highly considered and resolved. With the exception of Margaret Kilgallen—who died from cancer in 2001—they remain friends and still share an affinity for humble and/or discarded materials, a devotion to community, and an anti-consumerist stance. Highlighting their aesthetic contributions as well as subversions, Energy That is All Around provides a raffish and spirited introduction to the distinctive work of some of California’s most innovative contemporary artists.

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