ENERGY THAT IS ALL AROUND, which originated from San Francisco and was on view at the NYU Grey Gallery in New York, provides a rare opportunity to view early works by five Mission School artists—Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Barry McGee, and Ruby Neri. These five artists were friends and collaborators who attended or were associated with the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and came together at a particular time and place in the early ’90s in the Mission neighborhood in alternative art spaces such as Four Walls, The Luggage Store, Victoria Room, The LAB, New Langton Arts, and Adobe Books. They were each strongly influenced by Bay Area Figuration, the Beat movement, Funk art, and punk. The group has been defined by their celebration of social art-making, community, folk art, nostalgia for the obsolete, low-production values, and “street” aesthetics. These values are manifest in the use of found and reclaimed materials, decorative patterning, cartoons, a distinctive color palette, hand lettering and printmaking, cluster paintings, and a crafty immediacy of materials.
I found the exhibition refreshing from usual New York summer group shows as I was pleasantly surprised by the freshness and still vital energy of the works by all five artists, especially Alicia McCarthy’s naive yet sophisticated and nonchalant yet intense abstract pieces. The above photosshow some of the works that I particularly admired, which all belong either to Alicia McCarthy or Chris Johanson. At the same time, the exhibition was somewhat of a nostalgia trip for me as I went SFAI as an undergraduate in the late 90s. Even though these five artists have already left the school by the time I arrived, their influence was still palpable in the student body and there were many imitators. The exhibition connects works and ephemera produced at the beginning of the artists’ careers, much of which has remained in their personal or peer collections, and I was particularly amused by the letter addressed to Alicia McCarthy from the SFAI administration (Photo below). In the letter, McCarthy is severely reprimanded for covering the school property with unauthorized graffiti, and I had to laugh as the language used in the letter was almost identical to many similar letters sent to entire student body many times a year during my career at SFAI. Graffiti covered walls were (and I believe still are) ongoing problems at the school. Of course, now all five artists are hailed as distinguished alumni, and their graffiti would be welcomed on the school premise.