Bruce Brown

essay for Undercurrents catalog
September, 2001

We owe much to our sources and should not be afraid to borrow. The right to this exchange is earned by dedication.
Frederick Sommer


In Alan Magee’s pristine studio overlooking a glorious tidal river whose finger points toward the open sea there is a tiny room perched on a pedestal–a room of odd angles and disorienting perspectives constructed for a brief film that never quite came to be. A young boy sleeps in his private sanctuary. Certainly the boy’s dream world can be no more exotic than the carefully selected furnishings that absorb the child’s waking hours: an imposing image of the mythic Egyptian sphinx, half animal and half king whose troublesome riddle destroyed many a passerby; a detailed human skeleton provided by an older brother; posters of revered American and European horror films from the 1920’s and ‘30’s; and an easel, a stool and two tin receptacles for colored pencils and paint brushes close by eight drawings carefully arranged upon a table.

I read the room as autobiography. The sleeping child is Alan Magee, whose fascination for fabulous stories (the Sphinx) and for the rational precise structure of things both human and mechanical (the skeleton) juxtaposed by the just plain weird (horror films) define him in childhood as they have throughout his years.

Time and experience distinguish the child-man from the deeply probing and comprehending artistry of the man-child. With no loss of a child’s wit, droll humor or theatrical imagination, Alan Magee in mid-life continues to offer us puppets begging to perform upon the stage, intimately scaled sculptures wrapped as mummies, disfigured human likenesses, altered digital images and photographs emanating from a rich dream world, but all acutely tempered by a clearheaded and hard nosed investigation and understanding, particularly of Western historical, humanistic and artistic thought.

Magee’s sympathies lie intuitively with the outsiders–the undercurrents– in art, in literature and in history who were cast aside for holding true to principles. Who among us is as intimately acquainted as is Magee with photographer Frederick Sommer, Danish film director Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, or the great pioneer puppet animator Ladislas Starovitch?

Magee pays homage to photographer Sommer by superimposing his photographic likeness on no less than a da Vinci icon of Virgin and Child. In another work, Penalty, a delicately sculpted hand with an amputated finger is studded with screws, drilled through flesh as in a crucifixion. The small work serves as an oblique reference to Carl Dreyer’s persecuted herbalist, Herlofs Marte, from his film, Day of Wrath. (Marte, trapped by a male church tribunal in 17th century Denmark, was burned as a witch.) A puppet like skeleton staged in front of Franz Kafka’s little house on Alchemist’s Street in Prague prepares to deliver his lines, and a bald, wide-eyed boy ramrods around in his beloved rat mobile in the best Starovitchian tradition. Through a steadfast dedication to his own work and imagination Alan Magee honors his mentors, and through him their spirits are made known.

Bruce Brown, Curator,
Center for Maine Contemporary Art,
Rockport, Maine