At The RealReal we have the unique privilege of receiving one-of-a-kind finds, from clothes straight off the runway to rare works of art. La Migra (1995), a collaborative painting by Barry McGee and Sandow Birk, is the latter, a monumental composition of metal panels emblazoned with distressed, downtrodden men and symbols of urban life—phone booths, vehicles, a liter of Pepsi. Reflecting on the Immigration Act of 1990 and the Los Angeles riots of 1992, La Migra (a slang term for immigration police and border patrol) addresses socio-political tensions that continue in the United States to this day.
Social issues and city life are common themes in both Barry McGee and Sandow Birk’s work. San Francisco native Barry McGee began as a graffiti artist under the moniker “TWIST” when he was a teenager, portraying urban images like liquor bottles and transients on buildings and subway cars. After studying painting and printmaking, McGee started to blur the lines of fine art and graffiti art by marrying them in his work. Los Angeles-based artist Sandow Birk creates socially-charged art that weaves pop culture and contemporary issues together. Birk’s projects span multiple mediums, but many of his paintings in particular concern the documentation of historical narratives and injustice, like in La Migra.
“Essential to this piece is the tension of high and low,” says Senior Art & Home Curator Brittany Gersh. “Materials, imagery and cultural references all play into that. Birk and McGee’s work pits one extreme against the other while forcing a conversation between them.” La Migra’s size—a sprawling 11 by 8.5 feet—emphasizes the horrors of displacement and institutionalized brutality. The oversized figures exude emotional turmoil, while finely-painted icons of daily life revolve around them. This juxtaposition of violence and urban minutiae enacts the tensions of their reality, of a community that struggles to maintain normalcy and stick together despite the many obstacles they face. The piece’s segmented panels also speak to division and unity, to pitfalls and possibilities.
“This piece was done twenty-two years ago, but these issues are more relevant than ever,” says Gersh. “La Migra shows how art can take on new meanings and evolve.”
In context of the current socio-political sphere, La Migra is poignant and haunting, serving as a reminder that history is doomed to repeat itself unless we actively work to change it. This seminal piece proves that art speaks, that in addition to enhancing a space, it can place marginalized perspectives center stage and encourage empathy and understanding in others. It’s a timeless, visual method of communication and activism, and a dialog that both artist and viewer participate in.
“Art by Barry McGee and Sandow Birk continues to gain a strong foothold in the market,” notes Gersh. “A piece like this will grow in value for its rarity and significance.” From a collector’s standpoint, a painting like La Migra isn’t simply a conversation starter—it’s a fragment of a narrative that is continually unfolding, a narrative in need of widespread acknowledgement. La Migra is significant in scale and subject matter, and is a work that has much to contribute to a large and complex discussion.
See La Migra by Barry McGee and Sandow Birk on the site here.