A Conversation with Alan Magee, by Ronald Bernier

published to accompany the exhibition Beyond Recognition, the Art of Alan Magee, Sordoni Art Gallery at Wilkes University, 2006

With the word ‘magic’…I wish to indicate that the mystery does not descend to the
represented world, but rather hides and palpitates behind it…

-Franz Roh, 1925

RRB: I’d like to begin by asking you to comment on the connection that’s been made between your work and the type of literary fiction known as ‘magic realism,’ an association you admit to being “a bit perplexed by.” The term, first coined in 1925 by the German art historian Franz Roh, described a new mode of realist painting – the so-called New Objectivity movement – then emerging in Weimar Germany (and a label only later appropriated by literary theorists). Its paradox refers to a form of representation grounded in the tradition of mimesis, that is, in the acutely observed depiction of the visible world, while at the same time fused with intimations of the meta-physical, or numinous realm, where the commonplace and the tangible get metamorphosed into mystery.

AM: I think what might perplex me in regard to any identification of my work with “magic” is that I’m uncomfortable with the notion of the supernatural or “meta-physical”. It seems to me that the actual world provides endless opportunities for awe or for moments of reverence. It’s not really otherworldly magic that I’m after, but an openness to the incredible complexity of what’s already here. I think it’s possible that a dependence on the supernatural can hinder the ability or the wish to see the real magic. And, as a reader, I don’t usually gravitate toward magic realist literature. On the other hand, there’s a nebulous area where good fiction often has that element of heightened coincidence and magic. I can think of some (Jorge Luis) Borges stories, and others by Singer or Malamud, that are not exactly magic realism, but nevertheless reach out to that mystery, that vastness…And I do respond to those writers.

I was thinking just now of a book called Winter Count, by my friend Barry Lopez, the stories in that book contain a kind of magic, but they aren’t overflowing with the supernatural. Certain characters in those short stories seemed to live in a state of heightened sensitivity and observation—that openness to what’s here brought to an
extraordinary level.

RRB: I like that idea of a heightened sensitivity and observation. Your work, for example, paintings like Dolmen (1986) and Pocket (1991), or the still lifes of mundane objects like spark plugs (List II, 1999), tools (Natural History, 1997), and desiccated bones are marked by the very foundations of realism – observational skill, technical precision, and recognizable subject matter, all in amplified clarity. But what seems to be at issue is not so much how your painting is made to convey a convincing likeness of its subject, but rather how recognition – the most basic relation we have the world – functions in an allusive way. There is recognition, but it is recognition extended well beyond likeness.

AM: I think it’s fair to say that I’ve always been interested in that. But I’ve never felt that I’ve comfortably nailed the way that process can work. I don’t know if I could do it repeatedly as a technical exercise. With each new picture I feel that I’m back into the challenge again of creating something that actually does invite that mystery, inviting somebody to feel into it something bigger; on the other side of that, the challenge is not simply to lavish attention, painting something in all its detail; that’s not necessarily going to make it interesting to anyone. And I think the test for me is that I do get interested. If the belief that we’re looking through this object and not simply at it can start with me, than maybe it can be pulled off.

RRB: And while likeness or resemblance is critical, capturing the ‘look’ of something much as a photograph does, your painting, instead, compels the viewer to stop, to linger, and be immersed. So it’s more than optical immediacy or presence; it involves an awareness, on the part of the viewer, of the density of our ‘momentary’ perception, of something slowly revealed. As you’ve put it elsewhere, “the beauty of a thing reveals itself with attention. Attention and beauty are so closely linked.” And this would seem to have to do with an intense familiarity on your part, an intimacy or sympathy even, with the object you depict. Can you comment on your choice of subject matter, your approach to it, and this idea of slowness in your – and the viewer’s – attention to it?

AM: I think that’s an extremely important part of what I’m trying to do, and it’s attached to a belief on my own part – maybe this is where the act of faith comes in – that there’s a value to sustained attention over a long time, and that implies that the complexity of something isn’t immediately apparent. It hides from us until invited out. If you take time with something, it often does reveal itself to be amazing, but you have to get past that threshold of familiarity. And for me it doesn’t begin by asking myself what might make a good picture, but by recognizing, for example, the incredible complexity in a network of
scratches on a metal wrench, and thinking that I could never get that right. Approaching it that way, through a genuine fascination, the process begins to work. And as you get further into it it becomes increasingly marvelous.

I think then we run into the necessity of making a comparison, as you suggested, between a high-resolution photograph, and a painting that I might make over sustained period. In painting, something of that struggle in getting the thing right, remains, and it is perennially available to somebody looking at the picture. The photo gives something different. I have nothing against photography; it has great strengths. But photography is not a still medium. It does not slow a viewer down. Time and the inevitable struggle of work adhere to the painting and give it a kind of friction. So, when I hear someone say of realist painting “why not just take a photograph?” I think, “well, you must not have really looked at either photographs or paintings.” The question is, of course, not a real one and is not meant to be answered, but it does seem to indicate that the person asking it has not experienced that sensation of friction that I mentioned. And you get that at times when you feel your own receptivity growing, and you only get it experientially.

RRB: Yes. In fact, Barry Lopez refers to this as “a conversation between the object and the painter…The painter is fully engaged here, at both the material and spiritual levels, engaged with the stone on the beach or whatever it might be…” Speaking specifically about your work he continues, “you put something into the painting…that excites a sense of the spiritual dimension of ordinary life which a person might not pick up on because the quality of the numinous might not be so apparent.”

AM: Right. I go down to Pemaquid Point, for instance, and think that somehow that series of stones would be over, but if I walk down there on a day that’s lit like this, with this soft overcast sky, it will be more beautiful to me than ever, and it will begin all over again. You grow into an appreciation of it. I liked that pebble beach the first time I saw it, but it was only a result of going down there and making paintings, and going back again and again, that I am now better able to see and appreciate the incredible subtlety and force of that place. You do feel yourself changing.

You mentioned the quality of the numinous, and how it isn’t always available or obvious as we go around in the world; and I think the search for that quality affects my choice of subjects. While I’ve never set a policy about this, I do choose to paint things that have no particular commercial value. I draw a lot of things that would be thrown out, things that could found behind a gas station, or in a salvage yard. These things seem to work better for me, They clarify my intentions. If the object I’m attending to would be repeatedly overlooked, universally overlooked, then its numinous quality may be more available. There is nothing left of human utility, and we can see without the usual overlays of practicality and prejudice. And really, the numinous is a quality entirely bound up with our ability and willingness to perceive it.

RRB: I see how that applies in some of your work – the pebbles, the wrench, the spark plugs. But what about where there is also some kind of strange combination of them? I am thinking of works that call to mind the Surrealist fascination with random and jarring juxtaposition, like the scull, jawbone, and wooden box in The Tea Box (1982); the
puppet figure and skeleton drawing in The Young Albinus (1997); the simultaneity of beauty and death in memento mori images like Gift (1983), Still Life (2001), and Collected Letters (1984); and the impenetrable portals into the dreamworld dimensions of Inlet II (1985), and Night of Transformations (1985).

AM: I suppose it goes back to our conversation a little earlier about the aptitudes and inclinations we’re born with, and maybe to that sense of mystery. And, of course, some mysteries are dark—mystery itself is bound up with mortality and fear.

I’ve always been attracted, from the earliest age, to horror films. Not the bloody chainsaw movies, but to the atmospheric expressionist films. The ones I saw first, at about age ten were the 1930s American films that were shown on late night television…Frankenstein, Dracula, The Werewolf of London, The Mummy, Later I discovered that some of the cinematographers, set designers and directors (like Karl Freund) were the same people who worked on the great German expressionist films from a decade or more before.

Look at some of the earlier still life paintings of mine, Gift, for example. I don’t want to tell a ghost story in a painting, but nevertheless certain arrangements can evoke for me those early, formative experiences, like horror films—things that inspired me and that remain an influence.

RRB: Does that come from the curious objects themselves or is it their unusual juxtaposition that triggers that unarticulated feeling or sensation, that sense of the ineffable?

AM: I think it’s both. Certainly I can’t diminish the impulses that the objects evoke, but the arrangement is very important to me too. It wasn’t until arranging that skull in The Tea Box…first trying some conventional arrangements, wondering how this thing might be painted... but when I took the mandible off and propped it against the box, well that arrangement was eccentric enough for me, and it began to feel right.

I think these decisions get into the realm of the intangible. The way a composition or arrangement comes together probably has to do with many unconscious associations—grainy old films and a thousand other things I’ve loved and forgotten. It’s a kind of game to arrange things until you find yourself in them. When we have finally made something that engenders a strong human reaction, then we’ve probably managed to carve away all the ineffective possibilities until we get to our own authentic solution.

RRB: In previous interviews, in making the point that the ‘magic’ is located in the everyday world and not in some prefabricated strangeness, you’ve often drawn the comparison between what you’re aiming for in your work and the surreal fictions of Franz Kafka, specifically his reference to “going over.” If I may quote from one of your recent conversations with Barry Lopez, you say that Kafka’s stories “are not saturated in unreality. They are stories with real buildings, chairs, and doors. ‘Going over’ describes the delicate transition into a dream-like state within a narrative.” The phrase, “going over,” you continue, was one Kafka used “in describing the point at which a work of otherwise realist fiction passes into the realm of the dream, or the impossible. Kafka felt that this shift, to be effective, should be subtle and that the dreamlike elements must not overpower the entire work.” This transmutation or fusion of dream and reality is the very definition of Surrealism, which you’re saying has been a strong influence on your work?

AM: Absolutely. The Surrealists were interesting to me during my art school years. I was drawn to any kind of representational painting, and abstraction held sway in the art schools at that time. I finally joined the Illustration Department at the Philadelphia College of Art; and there, I was in the company of art students who could draw very well.

But there wasn’t–at least coming from the Illustration Department–much in the way of a philosophy of art or work, and I was probably drawn to the ideas surrounding Surrealism to fill that conceptual void. I’d go around to the bookstores in Philadelphia and pick up anything about the Surrealists. I’d look intensely at the photographs of Andre Breton, Paul Elouard and Dali, at small reproductions of the collaborative drawings they called “magnificent corpses”, and at their paintings and sculpture. About this time I saw Un Chien Andalou by Dali and Luis Buñuel. All of his was fascinating, and far more important to me than the abstract paintings coming out of the fine art department. I think this early exposure to surrealism is what draws me to Czech art and film, which has never abandoned Surrealism. There, it isn’t a style as much as it is a philosophy.

RRB: Can you say more about your training, about how your study of illustration and your interest in realist representation connected with the kinds of subject matter you eventually gravitated toward? I assume the realist impulse in your later work was rooted in your early career in the 1970s in book cover design? Yet even in those examples there seems to be something more than pure illustration going on, a surreal dimension beyond visual accuracy.

AM: Before I entered the Illustration Department at PCA I had no particular interest in illustration. That department, though, was a place where a student could make representational pictures, and develop in the company of other talented students. The school may have thought: “what do you do with a kid who won’t stop drawing”? I believe that a lot of us were herded into the illustration department for that reason, but then we found out that “hey, we can make a living at this.” This was a great time for publishing, and illustration didn’t look like such a bad idea, because the magazines and book publishers were at that time so inventive. Art directors weren’t cramping an illustrator’s style, or expecting him to keep his own eccentricities out of an assignment.

RRB: So as an illustrator, even in this commercially defined practice, you had free reign to push the limits of representation?

AM: I had completely free reign. This is something that’s almost unbelievable today, but many illustrators, during my brief ten to twelve years, were essentially responsible for what sales teams are doing today, which is packaging a book. Editors, when they’d get a new series of Graham Greene books, for example, weren’t going to sit down and read all of those novels, so they’d give them to me, and I’d read them and interpret them in my own way. I can think of very few instances when an art director rejected a cover. I’d do a sketch, of course, and then the final painting, but the art directors always seemed to approve my sketches. The cynicism about the profits a book had to make hadn’t really settled in, and the big conglomerates hadn’t yet bought the small publishing companies. That happened later.

But to get back to the original question, surrealism was at the root of all of this because that is what I was looking at. I think all students scrounge around to find their own roots and their own interests; it’s not so unusual to have to do that. Some of the very good illustrations that were being done by my fellow students were also an influence, and also seeing what was beginning to appear in magazines, on posters, in European graphics… there was a lot to look at. You could measure your own work against some of these very exciting trends. The fine-art world had nothing to do with it. Donald Judd was fabricating big steel boxes and Carl Andre was putting bricks on the floor, but there was this undercurrent in art where some American artists, the illustrators at Push Pin Studio, and my classmates the Quay Brothers, for example, were beginning to look away from the fine arts and to these other sources for their inspiration.

RRB: That’s quite interesting, because in a sense it’s the other side of the story of Modernist abstraction. You’re saying that outside the orthodoxy of abstraction, there was far more freedom and experimentation going on in illustration departments?

AM: I would say that was so without qualification, because once you could get away from the dictates of the prevailing art theories everything that they weren’t mandating was possible. I remember one teacher saying “we start where Picasso left off.” And I thought, well I’m sorry, but I have to start where I am; I’m not set up to follow in Hans Hoffman’s footsteps…I’m not sure that that’s me. The latter generation of Abstract Expressionists could be somewhat totalitarian; they liked students to do what they were told. For me, this kind of orthodox art education would not have been helpful.

RRB: And that was rooted in your interest in German culture? When did that occur?

AM: It’s difficult to put a beginning on that, certainly travels there since about 1980, with my wife, Monika, who is German, had something to do with it. To say why rather than when might be a better place to start. I think all of these cold, inhuman qualities of contemporary American art we’ve been talking about –the cynicism and self-conscious irony of Minimalism, the brutishness of the Abstract Expressionist school…I found just the opposite qualities in German art. It’s often so emotional…Käthe Kollowitz, Otto Dix, the expressionist films, the more recent films of Wim Wenders or Hans Jurgen Siberberg—this art never shied away from feelings, from human emotions, often handled with great beauty. Think, for instance, about Kollowitz’s drawings. Who in the history of art has shown more empathy than Kollwitz? Here, one artist after another, making paintings and sculpture alive with feeling. I know Germany has its cool, modern and postmodern movements, but even their contemporary artists, like (Anselm) Keifer…you can’t deny that you feel something in the presence of those paintings. Film, literature…mostly German, but that’s branched off into looking at the art and literature of Central Europe too.

On a trip, back in the early 1980s, Monika and I visited the Goethe Institut in London. We discovered their library and went back day after day looking at films and through their collection of great art books. A lot of this stuff was new to me, like Hannah Höch and her marvelous collages from the 1920s. For me, the strangeness and the emotion in that work—and maybe coming of age with films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari prepared me for it…

I thought this kind of art was something I could do myself. I can remember looking through an Otto Dix book, each new page better than the last…each portrait expressing his wonderfully, diverse, perverse, human psychology.

Another part of this came from just talking to my wife, Monika, about Germany and the postwar culture, about the generation of her parents who didn’t want to talk about the war and the Nazi era. This phenomenon of silence was culture-wide, with young people wondering about the Nazi legacy and not getting any answers. Now, of course, the German society has changed…in visual art, in literature, in film, in conversation, you get this flood of recognition, of memory.

These are the things that drive me to the graphics, poetry, film, literature from that part of the world. We gravitate to other art forms and to other times and places if the present moment isn’t supplying what we need.

RRB: Looking at other artists and movements raises another question about your work. I am particularly struck by how, in many instances, your art is about art itself, a kind of introspective retrospective of Art’s subject matter, its mediums and techniques, its makers, and the very tools of its trade: for instance, Lost Memling, a reference to the 15th century Flemish painter; Samizdat, a tribute of the art and literature of Prague; and the digital photomontage portraits of Jan Svankmajer (Czech filmmaker and graphic artist), Wilfred Owen (British war poet), Veit Stoss (15th-century German sculptor and woodcarver), Frederic Sommer (American surrealist photographer) as well as those of Franz Kafka and Hannah Höch; then there is the reference to traditional vanitas iconography in Gift and Collected Letters; paintbrushes in the Gideon and Auerbach and Rhyme tapestries; and even your childhood self-images with paintbrush in hand.

AM: That particular series (of digital photomontages) comes from when I first began to use the computer at the Kodak Center for Creative Imaging back in 1992. I was looking for a subject for this new tool, and that started my series of artists’ portraits. They are really more allegorical tributes than portraits in the usual sense. They have both respect and a little humor in them. Of course there are a lot of artists that I admire, and I have only made about twenty of these “portraits” so far.

But these references to other art and artists also come into my the paintings, for instance I’ll do a postage stamp in honor of an artist like Jan Svankmajer or Hannah Höch, or I’ll repaint a Memling or a Holbein just because I like it. It’s not, in my case, a postmodern quote, it’s simply my reference to a painting I admire, I want to paint my own version of it. I know these sorts of “appropriations” of historic imagery have been done cynically, but I have to believe that as I make these references to other art it will be apparent that I’m not mocking, but finding something enigmatic and beautiful and wanting to get closer to it.

There is that continuum of art that you want to think you can be a part of…art that restores and renews your energy rather than draining it away. There’s just so much incredible art out there, and that’s been a major part of my sustenance.

RRB: Finally, before we end, I’d like to ask you to say a bit about the more politically charged work – for instance, the collage portraits of capitalism like Cost of Sales, Gold Card, and Arts and Leisure (1988), and the more haunting black and white monotypes, like Burrow (2000), Noise (1995), The Lamb (1992), and Weather (1992), faces emerging ghostlike from darkness, all variously scared and afflicted. How do these works fit within the trajectory of your career and the development of your thinking?

AM: Well, with the political collages like Cost of Sales, occasionally you just have to comment negatively about something, or even shout in outrage, and those collages are quite bitter. They are like the biting, cynical remarks about corruption in politics or in business that are made among friends.

The monotypes are a different kind of response. The direct impetus for those faces came from the impending first Gulf War, which started in January 1991. I began that series of monotypes in the summer before the bombing started. It was becoming clear that this war was going to happen, that we were building inevitably toward an attack on a civilian population. I can’t say that I was making or illustrating a political point with those monotype faces, but all that anxiety about what was coming played into them. I also realized that in this country it had then become off limits, in news reporting, to actually show images of people being killed or hurt, which is really what war is about…about people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, or who live in the wrong neighborhood and who have their world destroyed. I think that was part of the dread I felt, and there was also the uneasy question of just why are we putting ourselves in jeopardy with a hostile act that would not be forgotten. I felt that that invasion would lead to worse things, and indeed it has. But that’s getting into political motivations and mine were, as I said, more personal.

However, because many people have now projected their own experiences into those monotype faces, it’s enough for me to say when and why I started them, and not try to explain them as pictures about war, or anything else. To the extent that they are useful to people, that’s the way they should to be used. For instance, Barry Lopez recently wrote a book called Resistance, where nine of my monotypes became a stimulus for the book’s nine fictional narratives. The plot that holds the stories together tells of nine Americans, living as expatriates, who get called in for interrogation by the U.S. government’s “Department of Inland Security”. Barry found something in the faces that sparked the narratives for him, and he wanted the images to remain part of the book.

Then, my cellist friend Frank Dodge from Berlin wrote a series of solo cello pieces after a set of these faces, He calls his compositions The Monotype Improvisations. I think these pieces are wonderful, strangely beautiful—they give voices to the monotypes. Since the monotypes have been effective for certain people in their own lives, in their own ways, those interpretations often mean more to me now than my own original reasons for making the images. There is no doubt that for some people, they are too dark and disturbing, but there are others who consider those monotypes to be my best work.