On View: “Energy That Is All Around: Mission School” at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery

by James ScarboroughPosted on


Margaret Kilgallen. Untitled, 2000. Acrylic on paper. 21 x 14 in. Courtesy the Estate of Margaret Kilgallen and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

Talk about good timing. “Energy That Is All Around: Mission School,” curated by Natasha Boas for NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, features the work of artists that became known as the Mission School. The artists include three San Francisco Art Institute alumni, Alicia McCarthy, Barry McGee, and Ruby Neri, and their friends Chris Johanson and Margaret Kilgallen.

The name describes where they lived and worked. In the early ’90s, San Francisco’s bohemian Mission District offered, among other things, low rent. Try finding that now. They based their work on graffiti, signage, folk art and cartoons. It was political, if not radical. As inspirations, they cited Bay Area Figuration, the Beat movement and Funk. Each artist had a graffiti tag, including Twist and Reminisce. They worked in all media.

The show features early work not often seen. For that reason, it’s not so much definitive as evocative. Though the artists often worked together, the Mission School was not a movement. It was more of an ethos characterized by work that is both sketchy and finished. Indeed, the images describe the artists’ need to express themselves there, then. The work is as urgent now as it was then.

The show is not just historically significant. It’s also relevant. News reports (you could Google it) describe the public outcry at the siliconvalleyization of the Bay Area. The Mission School’s work and spirit were prescient. They worked with arte povera material. They stood against consumerism and the marginalization of communities. In content and form, their art merged into lived life.

It’s interesting to see this work as a museum show, isolated, contextualized, after having seen it, as this writer did, the moment it appeared. Now, it doesn’t compete with everything artistic and otherwise that was going on at the time. You can focus on it. Then, it competed with everything else going on. It contributed in no small part to the dynamic ambience of a city in crisis, immunological and otherwise.

“Energy That is All Around” is on view through July 12 at Grey Art Gallery, NYU.


Barry McGee. Untitled, 1994. Mixed media on driftwood. 22 x 16 in. Collection of Mariallidia Marcotulli, Bolinas, CA. Image courtesy the artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.


Margaret Kilgallen. Untitled, 2000. Acrylic on paper. 8 1/4 x 5 1/2 in. Courtesy the Estate of Margaret Kilgallen and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

Chris Johanson. The Inside of a Mind, c. early 1990s. Acrylic on paper. 15 x 17 in. Collection of Mariallidia Marcotulli, Bolinas, CA. Image courtesy the artist.


Alicia McCarthy. Untitled, 2009. Crayon, latex paint, and gouache on found wood. 15 1/4 x 16 1/2 in. Collection of Jay Farina and Michael Lighty. Image courtesy the artist and Jack Hanley Gallery, New York.


Ruby Neri. Untitled (from Such Thing Countless Wonders series), 1995. Recycled house paint, acrylic paint, marker, collage, and ink on paper. 34 x 22 in. Courtesy the artist.


Chris Johanson. This Conceptual Art Is An Energy Explosion About Positive Energy, 2002. Acrylic on birch. 60 x 60 in. Collection of Tom Peters, Los Angeles. Image courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA.


Barry McGee. Untitled, c. 1990–2013. Paint on wood. 46 x 90 in. Courtesy the artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

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