Alicia McCarthy’s compositions comprise intricate communities of lines, colors, and forms. They are constructed through a repetitive process of seemingly simple mark making, a sensitivity to hue and pigment density, and an openness to the distinct character of each gesture. An accessible quality permeates her humble materials and vibrant, organic geometries, whether painted or drawn. The decisions she makes in the studio reflect how she navigates everyday life, as well as the many Bay Area histories that she has been part of since the early 1990s.
Best known as a key figure in the legendary Mission School, McCarthy has been associated with a long lineage of artist-based communities. At Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, she met Harrell Fletcher and Virgil Shaw, who ignited her interest in working beyond gallery walls and strengthened her connections in the Bay Area. Later she was influenced by several generations of artists who studied and taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, including Joan Brown, David Park, Manuel Neri, Richard Shaw, and Irène Pijoan, for whom she was a studio assistant. Jay DeFeo’s enigmatic painting The Rose (1958–66) was hidden behind a wall at the school; according to McCarthy, "You couldn’t be a student or a painter without feeling its intensity like a haunting ghost-like presence." She became fast friends with fellow students Ruby Neri and Barry McGee, as well as with Margaret Kilgallen and Chris Johanson, who weren’t enrolled but spent time on campus. Though their individual interests extended beyond the group, including into queer and punk communities and small experimental art venues, Johanson, Kilgallen, McCarthy, and McGee would be forever linked by critic Glen Helfand’s characterization of them as progenitors of a craft and folk art, DIY aesthetic rooted in the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District.
Jenny Gheith, “Alicia McCarthy,” August 2017.
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