In Conversation with Alicia McCarthy

March 2019
Alicia McCarthy, Untitled, 2015; private collection

Erin O’Toole: It seems like community has always been important to your practice. When was the first time you felt like you were part of one?

Alicia McCarthy: The first time I felt, “These are my people,” was at Humboldt State University. That was where I met Harrell Fletcher, Virgil Shaw, Cleveland Leffler, and Chela Fielding. I felt so invigorated and active. That was also when I started painting on walls outside.

EOT: Did you meet them in class?

AM: I met them through the art department. I met Virgil through a mutual friend, and it was through him, later on, when we were both at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), that I met Ruby Neri. They knew each other through their fathers, Manuel Neri and Richard Shaw. Virgil’s whole family had a huge influence on me.

EOT: Have you ever actively sought community, or have you found it more organically?

AM: I never sought it—it really just happened. I met a lot of people through the Shaws, at SFAI, and then at The Luggage Store. The Luggage Store’s Street Festival was a huge part of my life for a decade.

EOT: Most people probably associate you with the Mission School, which also included Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Ruby Neri, and Chris Johanson. You were all involved in many different groups in the late1990s and early 2000s, however. What unified you?

AM: I think it was like-mindedness and shared concerns that brought us together, attracting us to the same spaces over and over again, like The Luggage Store, Epicenter Zone, Adobe Books, and Red Dora’s Bearded Lady Café.

EOT: How did you transition from art school to these other scenes?

AM: It was a very natural transition. There wasn’t a preciousness about what we were doing, where we were doing it, or what materials we were using. It wasn’t about a particular end. I didn’t necessarily go paint on the street wanting other people to see it. It wasn’t about showing. It was just an activity that was thrilling and freaky and fun—and daring and athletic and scary.

EOT: There was more to it than just the thrill factor, though, wasn’t there?

AM: It was about the act of doing it, and it was also a way of digesting the urban environment. To be honest, I’m better served out in the mountains. I think that comes from being a sensitive person. The amount of harshness outside every door here is pretty brutal. To me, everything in the city is always aggressively blaring some kind of information that’s not for the good of all. People seem to take that for granted, and individual voices get lost. A lot of people criticize graffiti because they don’t want to look at it, but I love that it’s an individual making a mark.

EOT: You frequently include the work of other artists in your solo shows. When did you start doing that?

AM: At Humboldt State. The local photographer in Arcata, a man who photographed for sixty years, developed arthritic hands, so his family closed his shop and put his entire life’s work in the dumpster. It was so devastating and heartbreaking. Chela and I had been given a show at the little student gallery, and we decided we would encase the entire room in his work. We included some of our work, too, but his photographs were literally everywhere, even over the lights.

EOT: And this continued at SFAI?

AM: Ruby and I included a bunch of friends in our two shows there. Including other people’s work has always been a part of what I do. It’s a different definition of a solo show, which always seemed bizarre to me, very isolationist. I understand the idea of individuality, but I also feel like I’m made up of all the people around me. Basically, for me a show is about sharing space.

EOT: Have you ever encountered any problems including the work of other artists in your shows?

AM: Including other people’s work sometimes got too elaborate. At some point I realized I needed to tone it down. I think my insecurities were getting in the way.

EOT: Were you trying to avoid being the center of attention?

AM: Yes. I don’t like to be the center of attention. It’s not a comfortable space for me. But that can cause harm. What I finally recognized was that I should put in a better effort and give myself more of a chance. That was a big moment for me, feeling more okay about focusing on my own work. I wasn’t interested in selling work at all. It wasn’t about that. I feel pretty grateful that sales came later in life for me, but I think part of that was just me allowing it to happen.

EOT: Because it was antithetical to your way of operating before?

AM: Yes. I didn’t want it to affect what I wanted to make and why I wanted to make it.

EOT: At SFMOMA you are including the work of your friend Aaron Curry, also known as ORFN. Who was he, and what is the significance of his moniker?

AM: For twenty-five years Aaron was one of the most consistent people painting out on the street in San Francisco and Oakland. He was incredibly prolific and inventive, a bit of a Ray Johnson type. He was a really brilliant person who was very particular, but he was also extremely humble. He used the name ORFN because he had been a foster kid. Just before I got the SECA Art Award, he had asked me to take care of his work after he died, which was really a shock and obviously an honor. So it seemed natural to include him.

Excerpted from an interview conducted at Alicia McCarthy’s studio in Oakland on January 24, 2017. Originally published in Jenny Gheith and Erin O’Toole, eds., 2017 SECA Art Award: Alicia McCarthy, Lindsey White, Liam Everett, K.r.m. Mooney, Sean McFarland (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2017).