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Artists With a Mission

By Natasha Boas

The influential punk iconoclasts who rocked San Francisco in the ’90s might be older, but they’ve still got something to say.

Barry McGee Installation view, Berkeley Art Museum 2012. Courtesy of Barry McGee and Ratio 3, San Francisco.

It’s safe to say that the San Francisco Mission School art movement of the 1990s is now a well-established part of the Bay Area’s cultural history and currency. With their spontaneous exhibition-making impulses and identifiable style (raw, immediate, hip), the post-punk Mission School artists have become international icons for new generations of makers and art students. Many are now well-known art-world figures represented by major galleries in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles whose work is prominently displayed in prestigious museums and private collections across the globe. Most importantly, the artists themselves have embraced the brand — and it’s about time.

“Hey, man. That’s what we were, Mission School artists, so you might as well tell the story,” Chris Johanson told me at the recent opening of his show in the Altman Siegel Gallery at Minnesota Street Project, the Dogpatch arts incubator. He had just turned 50 years old and was deciding to try his hand at painting on canvas and cloth for the very first time. Reclaimed wood panels had been his go-to painting surface forever.

Art critic Glen Helfand coined the term “Mission School” in 2002 in the now-defunct San Francisco Bay Guardian. More than a decade later, in 2013, the internationally celebrated art show Energy That Is All Around (which I had the honor of curating) debuted in San Francisco and New York City. These moments combined to contextualize the idea of this school within both the San Francisco Art Institute and the City’s dotcom history through rigorous research and representation, helping to gain visibility for Johanson and his peers in museum collections and exhibitions. The Mission School was being hailed as one of the major art movements to emerge from the 1990s that continues to inspire — and draw enthusiastic collectors.

The five key figures identified with the MissionSchool — but not exclusive to the movement —are Johanson, Barry McGee, Ruby Neri, Alicia McCarthy and Margaret Kilgallen. They were born on the cusp of digital age, and initially, their artwork was a political and socially conscious act of resistance against the first wave of corporatization and gentrification of their beloved city during the first dotcom era in the late 20th century. Using “low-value,” roughly-hewn materials, graffiti methodology and leftover house paint gleaned from the dump, Mission School artists were among a diverse group of young, mixed-race and college-educated kids to move into the historically Latino Mission District in search of cheap rent. Their early focus on the local, incorporating folk and craft traditions, took inspiration from the culture of the streets and transformed that into impossibly cool installations displayed in itinerant neighborhood galleries. The machine performance artists of Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Labs also made their base in the Mission during the 1990s, simultaneously acting in rebellious contrast to the techno-utopianism of California’s powerful Silicon Valley computer industry, where industrial design, hardware and software were becoming sleeker, more user-friendly, global and minimal. They looked backwards, but made it edgy and defiant. As Alicia McCarthy once explained,“We were already always nostalgic. We loved art history and we loved to paint.”

Today, these artists are grown up, in mid-career with mature, studio-based art practices. I imagine them driving Teslas with the interiors splattered in paint or using Instagram to communicate to fans with one hand while sharpening pencils with the other. They are deep NorCal natives and still rebellious, opinionated and anti-establishment. As the wry, blunt Ruby Neri puts it, “We are too old to do graffiti now. It takes a ton of energy, and it is, after all, a crime.”

Barry McGee, born in 1966

Once known by the tag name “Twist” for his graffiti and street art in the ’90s, McGee is an SF native and still works and lives in the Mission. Perhaps the most famous of the Mission School artists, he received a BFA in painting and print-making from the SanFrancisco Art Institute in 1991 and now collaborates with Apple and Beats and other brands. Recently, he signed the Mission Street Garage public art project with his signature grids and sad-sack cartoon figures. McGee is represented by Ratio 3 in San Francisco and at Cheim & Read in New York.

Margaret Kilgallen, 1967-2001

Today, the artist, who was married to Barry McGee and tragically died of cancer at age 33, three weeks after giving birth to their daughter, is one of San Francisco’s artistic legends. The high priestess of the Mission School, Kilgallen received her MFA from Stanford University, and was influenced by American folk art, trainspotting and vintage sign painting. This year, the Aspen Art Museum showcased the first full retrospective of her career in a bittersweet breakout moment. Her estate is represented by Ratio 3 in San Francisco.

Ruby Neri, born in 1970

Neri’s recent ceramic sculptures and glazed vases of oversexed bad-girl figures are scaled-up and bodacious. Based now in Los Angeles, her deep roots are in West Marin, her birthplace. The artist’s initial influences were the Bay Area figurative painters and funk ceramicists closely associated with her father, the sculptor Manuel Neri. Her signature graffiti horses (signed “Reminisce,” or “REM”) could be found all over SF in the ’90s. Neri holds a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA from UCLA. She is represented by David Kordanksy Gallery in Los Angeles.

Alicia McCarthy, born 1969

Complex weaves and wafts and colorful codes are her signature — and Oakland her home base. The painter and LGBTQ community activist, now a boldface name associated with the San Francisco Art Institute, is still a regular presence in alternative art spaces in The City. Meanwhile, McCarthy has garnered major international recognition. She’s represented by Jack Hanley Gallery in New York and John Berggruen Gallery in SF. Twelve years ago, she received her MFA from Berkeley.

Chris Johanson, born 1968

At once a cult skater, a sort of New Age guru and poet, the painter currently splits his time between Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles. While pushing painting to the limits of the medium, Johanson also operates Awesome Vistas (a record label that produces limited-edition vinyl in collaboration with musicians and artists), and collaborates with his wife, artist Johanna Jackson, on a clothing and furniture line. He’s represented by Altman Siegel Gallery in San Francisco, and Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York.

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