Mission: school

Alicia McCarthy turns her studies into art
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johnny@sfbg.com

REVIEW When I walked into the Berkeley Art Museum for a first look at Alicia McCarthy's contribution to "Fer-ma-ta," the 37th annual UC Berkeley MFA graduate exhibition, I was given a small stash of pencils — the kind you use to mark scores in bowling or putt-putt golf. Note-taking is allowed in museum spaces, but pens are a definite no-no. The self-consciousness brought about by such a rule and the gift of the pencils only served to enhance the direct address of McCarthy's work. The artist has a flair for such modest tools — in fact, her prismatic use of colored pencils counts as one of the most imitated and influential Bay Area art practices of the past decade. Also, she isn't one to kowtow to the conventions of art-market packaging and presentation.

That trait again became clear the minute I approached McCarthy's section of the group show. She has 11 works fixed — sometimes nailed directly — to the museum walls, but in addition she's placed an old wooden chair before them in a manner that presents viewers with the option of sitting on one piece of art to view others. The chair is, like most of McCarthy's material, a found object, and it isn't going to be brought to Antiques Roadshow anytime soon. Perhaps it's a piece of classroom furniture from a bygone era — though, curiously, it's on rickety, small wheels — and its surface is marked with rings. A collector or consumer would view those marks as water damage, but in McCarthy's art, such wear and tear only adds texture. Here, as in other shows, her drawings are on already used surfaces: construction or packaging paper and slabs of wood. The use of found material, while welcome in an ecological sense, has become a cliché in Bay Area circles and beyond in the indie pop Found magazine culture. But McCarthy still does it better than others who've come in her wake. Even more than the forebears who practiced assemblage in the '60s, she taps into the expressiveness of an object's wrinkled history, so the splatter pattern of a coffee stain can function like a splash of watercolor.

What happens when an artist associated with the core of the Mission School — and perhaps the most undersung — goes back to school? Some of McCarthy's livelier contributions at BAM bounce free from that question's limitations to play with the very idea of education. Amusingly, I found myself using the little pencils given to me by the museum to take notes on — and even re-create to a degree — a trio of McCarthy pencil and ink drawings that could be categorized as classroom notes and doodles. In McCarthy's hands, the idea of turning one's study notes into art isn't smart-ass or lazy but critical, humorous, and kinetically lively, producing words and scrawls that dance across the page. Andy Warhol's churchgoing habits, characteristics of fascism and Marxism, and ideas about theories and practice orbit around various forms of the show's chief motif: a series of snaky lines that almost but don't quite form a ball shape similar to that of tangled yarn or metal coils, most featuring a depth of field that it's easy to become lost within.

As Artforum welcomes the return of op art with a pair of cover essays about large survey shows in Columbus, Ohio, and Frankfurt, Germany, it's worth contemputf8g the op art undertow that's long been present within some of McCarthy's (as always) untitled work. While it isn't as noticeable or dominant as in the drawings and other pieces made by her friend Xylor Jane, it is there, particularly in a black-and-white doors-of-perception piece at the BAM show that might be rendered in Magic Marker. For McCarthy, fine execution isn't the point so much as dedication to vision.

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