Alan Magee: Magic and Real

Ronny H. Cohen
Arts Magazine
November, 1982

It is no exaggeration to call Alan Magee a magical renderer who, seemingly, has conjured up a vivid panorama of specifically focused and specially revealing images of reality. Since the late 1970s, the 35 year-old, Maine-based artist has been mainly involved with making still lifes of one or more "things" which, for one reason or another, have attracted his attention. During this time, he has developed an amazingly acute and fluid technique for handling various watercolor and pencil mediums on paper and acrylic mediums on canvas, which allows him to describe, to a surprisingly accurate, convincing, and most important, sensuous and immensely appealing degree, the bare-bones look of "things." The detailed, true-to-life description so characteristic of his meticulous expression is presented not as an end in itself, but as a means for himself and others to discern in "things" the essential pictorial vitality in their forms and patterns: the concrete and physical beauty, which, in everyday contexts, too often goes unnoticed. Poised at the provocative edge of the mimetic bridge linking art and life, Magee's singularly intense and probing vision reveals deep and abiding interests in the visual politics of illusionism.

His methods are best appreciated in recent examples of drawings and paintings, highlighted in the exhibition of his work at the Staempfli Gallery (October 12-November 6), which will travel to the San Jose Museum of Art, California (December 26-February 6) and to the Norton Gallery, West Palm Beach, Florida (February 25-April 3).

The drawings reveal Magee's keen sensitivity to the perceptual and psychological impact of the presentation. Every aspect of the format is commandeered to call attention to the physical presence as well as to the emotive potential latent in the content of "things" under scrutiny. Working within a rectangular page, measuring 22 1/4 by 18 1/8 inches, he has chosen a size and shape that can encourage the kind of close and introspective viewing which his intense and detail-rich mode of rendering demands. The content is displayed in an isolated fashion against a neutral background which, depending on the kind of paper used—his favorites are vintage Whatman and a basic, heavy watercolor—can be blue or white.

The imagery, especially in the series of drawings based on various mail art themes, in which envelopes, postcards, letters, and packages are among the recurrent subjects, attains a level of illusionism approaching the tromp l'oeil. In Three Envelopes (1982), for example, the crisp and clear surfaces, the sure handling of the edges of the wrappers, the consistent evenness of the different typefaces and printed,stamps and impressions, are all so striking as to suggest the presence of collage (though no fragments of real things are ever used).

A provocative experience of "seeing is believing" is no less offered by the mixed~media drawing Pears (1982) which shows a pair of pears sitting on a stamped package, turned on its side with the address facing the viewer. While the scale and figure-and-ground composition are conventions that immediately announce the "this is art and don't confuse it with life" status of the work, the overall imagery nevertheless emanates so enticing a palpability as to immediately suggest something lifelike. The visual verisimilitude it presents demands that the viewer look carefully; in looking, the viewer sees, and above all senses in the forms and patterns, the basic inherent qualities of real objects that define space and light, that obey gravity and have color, weight, shape, volume, and sensual and variegated textures. Certain subtly rendered details—such as the shadows cast by the two pears on the top of the package and the package itself on the ground, along with the less-than-perfect, scruffy surfaces of the package and the ripe coloration of the fruits contrasted with the matte tints of the package—are effective touches which serve to inspire belief in the truthfulness of the appearances of these "things" on paper. This last aspect also invites speculations concerning the "why" of the presentation, which, of course, involves the implications of the subject matter.

The drawing Pears is steeped in both Old Master and Modernist traditions of still life, though it has a totally fresh appeal. Any fruits bring to mind their use in the life-is-fleeting, vanitas still-life treatments popular in 17th-century Dutch and Northern European art. Still, the overt ripeness and availability of the fruits here are qualities used to call attention to their
placement as forms. The pears are arranged in a rhythmic relationship that brings Cezanne to mind. The ways in which the impulse to movement in the form on the left is counterbalanced by the frontal, rounded bulk of the form on the right, as well as the harmonious use of color throughout, recall the famous maxims found in Cezanne's letters to Emile Bernard, first published in the Parisian magazine Mercure de France (1907) and widely diffused through 20th-century art: "Everything in nature models itself according to the sphere, the cone and the cylinder," and "the more color is harmonized, the more drawing is made precise."

Still, the total impact of the imagery is intriguingly personal and unCezannesque in feeling. Whereas Cezanne would refer to the fruits' use as food in his settings (the pears in the watercolor Three Pears rest on a plate), Magee has offered, instead, a plausible but nonfunctional context for his pears. The presentation, however, is curiously open-ended about the association-laden combination of the pears and package, although it is exceedingly informative and specific about every aspect of these objects' appearances—down to the names and addresses of the sender and receiver, and the time when and place where the package was posted. Yet, the insistent presence of the imagery provokes the persistent notion that there is more here than the informative, factual data meeting the eye. Ideas about possible connections between the pears and the package can run a conceptual-cum-thematic gamut from the universal (i.e., pears are a product of nature, a mailed package is a product of contemporary industrial culture) to the particular (i.e., the hidden meanings that the pears and the package can have to the sender, receiver, and even more importantly to the artist). After such fanciful flights of thought, however, the viewer is constantly brought back to the reality of the image, to in fact the presentation itself, where these everyday things assume a fantastic, dreamlike glow.

Similar experiences are offered in other drawings. In Monika (1982), a blonde nude model is shown with torso turned frontally and head bent slightly to the left. The pose calls attention to the animate nature of the subject, though the body is treated from a distance and approached in much the same way as a still life. The description, again as in the still-life examples previously discussed, aims to discern the underlying and essential pictorial vitality in the forms and patterns, here of the body. Again, Magee uses a versatile technique which in the precise articulation of details can involve the airbrush and stumps for the smoothing of surfaces and shading of planes. He also works from life as well as photographs, and in most cases does both, while applying his combinations of colored pencils and watercolors into unusually harmonious and homogeneous images. But in stressing the effect of light on skin textures and the anatomical definitions in Monika, Magee intentionally varies the degree of illusionism, and makes some areas such as the breasts and belly more emphatic than, say, the arms and head region.

The device of fading in and fading out visual data is evident in earlier examples, including the still life Firecracker Fuses (1981) and the series dealing with women in which the particular form and pattern of a long braid was featured. This variation in the degree of illusionism calls attention to the artist's freedom to present different levels of realism, and, thereby, even in an apparently objective mode, subjectivize and personalize the interpretation being offered for the artist and viewer alike. In Monika, this aspect of the work and the abstract presentation—the model is shown in isolated fashion against the blue surface of the paper—help to idealize the specific visual information recorded in the drawing and bring to mind the classical, sculptural tradition of female nudes, certainly at odds with the popular PhotoRealist approach which shows every line, pore, and blemish.

In Penmanship (1982), Magee's still-life-like treatment of the human body is even more overt. Here, a female torso is again shown frontally, with arms hanging down at the sides, but cropped just below the mouth and above the pelvis. Over her form, which appears to fade out at the extremities, a page from a 19th-century calligraphy book is drawn. Though the image can be considered within the context of the popular Seventies genre of body art, its arbitrary juxtaposition of torso and written page emanates a jarring, surreal-like directness at the source of its appeal.

Other drawings convey profound sensations of mystery. In Tea Box (1982), a human skull is shown from the back on top of an old-fashioned, imported tea box, which in turn supports a leaning lower jawbone placed so that it looks squarely at the viewer. All the objects were found and set up by the artist. As in the drawing Pears, cast shadows by the box give spatial dimension to the blue background, while the narrow shadows cast by the jawbone and the skull emphasize their own palpability as forms. Much attention, however, is given to the patterns in each surface. Though the approach is more matter-of-fact than sentimental, Magee manages to endow the harmoniously colored and richly textured surfaces with poignancy. Nostalgic feelings of times remembered and lives past are also found in several of the multiple-layered compositions. Two representative drawings are Collected Letters (1982), showing the skull on the tea box from a side angle over elements of a postcard and letters, and Bones (1982), a work depicting a row of small bones (from bird skeletons found on the Maine beaches) on top of an envelope below which fragments of another page of calligraphy can be detected.

Magee's distinctive vision is tellingly displayed as well in his paintings. The interest in form and pattern discussed in the drawings is even more boldly evident in these works. For subject matter, Magee has turned to the stone formations on the Maine beaches and the quartz ledges on the coastline. Working from photographs and projected slides taken on the spot, he creates, using a special, instinctual dripping process, a group of striking, all-over compositions. Brimming with lively linear rhythms, coloristic movements and planar tensions, paintings like Stones with Red Brick (1982), which is 50 by 70 inches, and The Other Gods (1982), a quartz piece measuring 52 by 72 inches, reveal the essential power and beauty of nature's constructive force. These works also show Magee's ability to handle a large scale. In the paintings the degree of illusionism is so strong and substantial and the close-up presentation so direct as to appear confrontational. In Stones with Red Brick each separate stone is individuated by texture, weight and shape, while the total impression communicates the structural variety and randomness inherent in such formations.

What Alan Magee finally offers is a penetrating pictorial hammer with which he reshapes reality and demonstrates the viability of the realist sensibility to the visual and information-conscious 1980s.