For married artists Clare Rojas and Barry McGee, distinct creative spaces make way for original forms.
The names of San Francisco art stars Clare Rojas and Barry McGee are often mentioned in tandem. It stems from the fact that they’re married, occasionally collaborate, came out of the loosely knit Mission School movement of the 1990s, and were both featured in the influential 2008 underground art documentary Beautiful Losers. But creatively, the couple (who married in 2005 and share a 15-year-old daughter, Asha, born to McGee’s late wife, artist Margaret Kilgallen) exist in parallel universes. She’s a painter, musician and writer who crafts powerful large-scale narratives from a folk-leaning perspective. His striking psychedelic patterns, illustrative painted portraits of old men on liquor bottles, and sculptures of graffiti taggers celebrate a gritty urban vitality.
Their differences intensify when you visit their workspaces. Rojas affectionately calls McGee a hoarder, and says part of the reason she got her studio seven years ago, having previously worked out of their house in the city’s Mission neighborhood, was because “he takes over every space that I have, so I need to have a room of my own.” Invoking Virginia Woolf, she adds: “Every woman should have [her] own space.”
Rojas, 40, and McGee, 50, work on opposite sides of Potrero Hill. She paints in a roomy, skylighted studio in the American Industrial Center on Third Street, surrounded by tech companies, chocolatiers and the hum of Muni’s T-line rolling past. S.F.’s massive new gallery hub, Minnesota Street Projects, is only blocks away. Tubes of oil paint line windows overlooking the industrial Dogpatch skyline. Rojas’ rolled mock-ups for a future public art piece—a giant tiled mosaic of Asian textiles in a cathedral quilt pattern for the upcoming Chinatown Muni Station—sit neatly in shelving.
Rojas, who is represented by Kavi Gupta gallery, recently shipped all of her new paintings to Brussels for a show at Alice Gallery, but some small-scale, in-progress abstracts on linen line one wall. After working larger-scale for years, Rojas was forced to return to paintings that fit in two hands by a recent back injury. “I love those challenges, like, bring it on, universe,” she says of the constraint. “There’s something very intimate about being able to work small at my desk.” Abstracts condense the stories in Rojas’ narrative paintings, she says. “It’s very much like pushing so far that you don’t even recognize the original,” she says. “It’s heaven, and you can just keep going.” A new monograph out this month from D.A.P., Clare Rojas: Plain Black: Abstract Paintings, celebrates the artist’s angular, reductive works.
McGee’s studio is lodged in a back corner of Potrero Hill near San Francisco General Hospital, the 101 Freeway and a homeless encampment. Bars cover his windows and old surfboards stacked by the dozen flank the door. Paint-splattered chairs and tables dragged in off the street support spray cans and small piles of illustrations that McGee (represented by Ratio 3 gallery) taps out on his cellphone using alphanumeric code. Bands practice in garages on this street, artist warehouses surround a nearby skate park, and displaced downtown galleries have found new life nearby. He feels at home here. “The neighborhood’s great—it’s basically the Potrero Arts District. We’re gonna put a plaque down,” he jokes. “The freeway’s right there, so you can make as much noise as you want—nobody cares. It’s pretty shitty, but I like it.”
His belongings overtake a studio, two offices and a small loft. The offices are crammed with books, a moped, thrifted neon baskets, and work by local artists McGee admires, such as emerging artist Willy Reed. Pointing to a collage of Reed’s leaning against a doorway, McGee says, “I love it because I have no idea what’s going on.” His untamed workspace embodies the frenetic energy that his paintings, drawings and photographs take on when he clusters them together into 3-D bulges for installations at SFMOMA, Berkeley Art Museum or Facebook’s Menlo Park HQ.
“I like vast areas of super-detailed stuff and then having your eye rest a little,” McGee says. He’s referring to the paintings at his feet, which are a mix of his signature drifter portraits and vibrant tessellations. These pieces will eventually become his contribution to Sites: Unseen, a new public art initiative inviting artists to transform eight alleyways in the Yerba Buena neighborhood. Sites: Unseen launches October 9 (and is due to run through 2018) with McGee’s piece, his first large-scale, permanent public work in San Francisco.
For the project, Rojas, too, will have an alleyway (almost) of her own next year. She plans to riff off a series of public Crochet Jams led by Bay Area artist Ramekon O’Arwisters and The Luggage Store director Darryl Smith, where they engage the public in weaving strips of fabric together to create a permanent mosaic piece. Rojas is looking forward to the collaboration, which like her canon as Peggy Honeywell (the moniker she uses when recording her banjo- and guitar-driven folk songs with a cast of musicians), temporarily removes her artistic isolation. “It’s a beautiful social experience,” she says of the Crochet Jam series.
McGee’s work will be installed in the Moscone Center Garage, on the corner of Clementina Street West and Kaplan Lane. He agreed to be part of Sites: Unseen because he’s drawn to the parking lot’s neglected vibe. “It’s weird because it’s right downtown where the arts district is blossoming, and there’s this parking garage that’s completely abandoned at the very top,” he says, theorizing, “Maybe one car got stuck there for the rest of time.”
McGee is animated when he’s talking about covert spaces, a passion that likely stems from his roots as a graffiti writer in S.F. in the ’80s. He’s concerned about the popularity of commissioned murals in the city, likening them to bad tattoos. “I’m annoyed that people have the ease right now where they can just put up a mural anywhere,” he says. “I like things that are a little more antagonizing. I come from a generation where people would do things—regardless of whether they’d have permission. And it came out however it came out, and stayed for however long it stayed.”
Photography by ANGIE SILVY.
Written by JENNIFER MAERZ.