By the time he graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1991, Barry McGee (b. 1966, San Francisco, California, U.S.), aka TWIST, had been immersed in the Bay Area’s graffiti scene for half a decade. He began producing exquisitely rendered portraits of nameless sad sacks left behind by the modern world. His innovation came in isolating characters, or icons like a screw or hypodermic needle, as stand-alone street images in black and silver, bucking the graffiti tradition of using them as accessories to draw attention to the painted name. These signature images continue to play a regular part in McGee’s street work, but often also wind up on empty liquor bottles or as bit-part players in large installations featuring found objects, such as spray paint cans, signs, industrial components and pieces of scrap wood and metal.
McGee characterizes his practice as being concerned with the myriad ills and frustrations of life in modern cities. The theme is common enough among street artists, but here it is infused with a singularly poetic melancholy, as the artist’s baggy-eyed figures seem to wander, lost, amid abstract fields of color and pattern. Identified as a member of his hometown’s “Mission School,” McGee has—along with his late wife Margaret Kilgallen—been instrumental in providing a context for the appreciation and understanding of work by other street artists that display elements of downbeat or retro style.