Look Back: Pioneers of '90s Mission Arts Scene

by Gillian Edevane, May 2020

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, an undeniably rebellious style of art emerged in San Francisco’s Mission District. At odds with an influx of dot-com cash to the city and a shifting urban landscape, a group of artists began weaving graffiti aesthetics and the sensibilities of folk art and craft. Its practitioners worked with found materials, held spontaneous group exhibitions in garage galleries, and eventually ushered a new style of what was considered “lowbrow” paintings and sculptures into museum collections.

Though they worked in various neighborhoods across the Bay Area, the artists have since become known as members of “the Mission School,” an enduring (and widely debated) label coined in 2002 by art critic Glen Helfand. Its most prominent members—including Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, and Rigo 23, among others — turned into key figures in a post-punk scene that pulsed through the end of the 20th century.

In videos and articles below, learn about their work, hear their reflections, and discover why the “Mission School” — however you may feel about the name — remains a pivotal movement in the evolution of Bay Area culture.

Chris Johanson:

Watch as Johanson discusses his fascination with public sculpture, calling it “the people’s art.” “It’s like a breath of fresh air when you see public sculpture,” he opines. “I don’t care what it is.; I don’t even care if I like it.” An artist with a penchant for infusing his work with humor, Johanson also discusses one of his particularly playful pieces—a giant, inflated question mark titled, I Do Not Know But Am Open to Learning (2013).

A South Bay native who attended City College of San Francisco, Johanson went on to show his work in the Whitney Biennial and is a previous SFMOMA SECA Art Award recipient. He collaborated with SFMOMA for the creation of this Open Studio project, in which he offers guidance on creating work with paper, watercolor paints, watercolor brushes, and pens.

Margaret Kilgallen

“I like to paint images of women who I find inspiring,” Kilgallen says in this short feature from Art21, which offers an intimate look at the late artist and her multi-disciplinary practice. “I don’t like to choose people who everyone knows; I like to choose people that just do small things, and somehow hit me in my heart.”

Kilgallen, who was 33 when she died of breast cancer in 2001, graduated with a BFA from Colorado College, an MFA from Stanford University, and has had pieces shown in the Whitney Biennial. Her work often incorporated the painted forms of heroines she admired and was heavily influenced by folk records and typography. The painter, who was married to fellow artist Barry McGee, continues to inspire younger generations, as detailed in this piece from SFMOMA’s Open Space.

Alicia McCarthy

“I’m not interested in living a controlled life,” McCarthy says in this video interview, which focuses on her practice of weaving bands of colors into tapestry-like patterns.

The artist, who graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute and maintains an art practice in Oakland, goes on to explain the significance behind the interconnected communities of color present in her pieces. “Each line has its own character,” she says. . “…When there’s a line that’s really bothering me, it’s like, ‘oh, that’s that bad mood I was in. Or the fight I had. Or the thing that I said that I shouldn’t have said.’” See another video focused on McCarthy’s influences here.

Barry McGee

“In the ‘80s, you’re just kind of figuring it out, and then in the ‘90s you’ve kind of got ahold of it,” McGee says of his early graffiti practice, which he likens to a testosterone-driven sport. “By the mid ‘90s, I knew what I was doing. I felt like I was on top of the world then.”

McGee, whose work also includes drawings, paintings and mixed-media installations, was raised in San Francisco and graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute. Following his work in the early and mid-1990s, McGee showed his work in major museums across the country, appeared in the Venice Biennale, and has collaborated with leading brands, including Apple.

Rigo 23

“In the North Mission, we felt like the character of the neighborhood was that you could find everything and everyone, and every kind of person, and every kind of taste,” Rigo 23 says of his early days in San Francisco.

A Portuguese-born muralist, painter, and political activist, the artist graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute and continues to work in the city. Watch above as the SECA Art Award winner talks about the sense of endless possibility he felt while living and working in the Mission in the 1990s, even as the neighborhood changed. Then, consider this Open Studio art activity he created with SFMOMA.


For more on the Mission arts scene and its artists, consider these reads and videos:

“In the Studio With an Artist Who Makes Giant Woman-Shaped Vases” from the New York Times

“Beautiful Loser,” a documentary preview from Sidetrack Films

Clare Rojas: Causing an Uproar from XLR8R

Amy Franceschini Reimagines World War II-era Community Gardens” for San Francisco from SFMOMA.