Alan Magee, Inlets

catalog essay by Barry Lopez
The Joan Whitney Payson Gallery of Art
April 7-May 19, 1990

Since I am neither a visual artist nor an art critic but a writer, some explanation is due of why my words are here. In a way curious to me, but which I am sure is not at all uncommon, Alan Magee and I independently discovered, and then responded enthusiastically to, each other's work. Alan's drawings of common, found objects accentuated for me their innate dignity; in his well known stone paintings he was able, in my view, to present nature rather than compete with it. I felt refreshed and clarified by his vision. For his part, certain images in short stories of mine affected his sense of composition.

The collages before us now are new work. I have the privilege, though it is somewhat daunting, of addressing them publicly for the first time. It is work, of course, that stands on its own, without any need of explanation; and men and women more knowledgeable about technique and more conversant with symbol and art history could, obviously, provide an illumination I cannot. I am, to generalize, no more than an interested viewer, prone to ask in approaching the work of any visual artist relatively simple questions I hope are both germane and responsible. What is the meaning of this work, for example, to a community of people? Is it rich in allusion and metaphorically striking, more in other words that just an announcement of the artist's presence in the world? Does it disturb complacency or stimulate wonder? Does it awaken anger or compassion?

These questions, I think, are more social than aesthetic. They proceed from a belief that one of the few overriding issues in contemporary life—not only in art but in politics, in law, in business—is the extent to which individual ambition can be accommodated without destroying the fabric of society They proceed, further, from a feeling that if art is merely decorative or entertaining, or even just aesthetically brilliant, if it does not elicit hope or a sense of the sacred, if it does not speak to our fear and confusion, or to the capacities for memory and passion that imbue us with our humanity, then the artist has only sent us a letter that requires no answer.

There are, it seems to me, at least three elements in this collection of Alan Magee's work that recommend it in the light of these high-minded themes. (I should note first that the collection is unusual in that it is a narrative presentation. The sequence of images tells a story, a fable about moving from a state of dark impasse to one of serene concordance with the world, by way of a looming door that opens on a difficult, troubling confrontation.)

The qualities that, for me, recommend Alan's collages are the way in which he has made this intensely personal and artistic experience relevant to those of us who are not artists and who do not know him; how he has reflected here, without presuming, on a moral universe in which beauty must accommodate horror; and the extent to which he dwells on memory. He offers memory as a foundation for hope. Its exercise becomes a refutation of totalitarianism, in several of its guises.

One bright summer afternoon I sat at a table with Alan at his home on the coast of Maine. The table faced onto a row of windows, and our view was of a shallow inlet from the sea. He spread before me a selection of collage-on-monotype prints from the Inlets series and said some things that now seem relevant to an appreciation of the work.

All the collages were made following a catalytic trip to the United Kingdom, a trip on which Alan and his wife, Monika, visited the Stones of Stennis (upright slabs of slate, standing on a slip of land between ocean and lake in the Orkneys); old friends in London (artists Timothy and Stephen Quay, who create surrealistic films utilizing puppets and made objects); the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh; and the Goethe Institute in London, where Alan was struck by, among other things, the photomontage technique of Hannah Höch (1889-1978).

No artist can fully explain the generative impulse behind his or her work. The impetus for a particular image might be obvious or his preoccupation with an underlying theme might be apparent; but the specific sequence of stimulating events, the precise role of complex desires that give rise to work—an artist, asked for a rational explanation for the work, can only guess at these. It is enough then, perhaps, for us to know only that Alan Magee found, in the surface textures of stone at a prehistoric monument in the Orkney Islands, in the innocent faces of dolls at an Edinburgh museum, in the stimulation of technical and aesthetic conversation with artist friends, and in the technique of another artist, material with which he could kindle a fire of his own.

In the opening or initial collage, a brutal wall, foreboding and austere, forms a backdrop to small, light elements from Alan's earlier works. In the collages that follow, this initial image, a Mesoamerican wall with windowpanes of stone, a door without a handle and with no entrance step, is recurrent and insistent. A flying doll becomes the device by which the wall is finally surmounted. In the room within, beyond the vaulted door with its dark and bloody orifice, we experience a certain relief. A difficult, seemingly intractable problem, the wall that cut us off from experience, no longer towers before us. Instead we encounter memory—personal and historical. Engaged with these memories, we begin a kind of growth that is neither as painful nor as debilitating as we had imagined it would be when the wall stood inexorably before us.

The hingeless door, this inlet to the soul's interior, opens on a stream of faces. The faces signal hope but also trouble, a confrontation that hints at a corrupt and wayward intelligence which we must accept in ourselves, and accept in others, before we can transform experience into vision.

When the grim stone door finally opens, when we take the courageous but also inventive first step and enter the storehouse of dream and symbol, we discover in the pool of darkness within an incipient joy. The sudden reassurance that joy induces surges and then fades as we proceed down the corridor of images, until finally it rises up, resplendent, and its source becomes apparent: the joy that impels us stems from a recognition of beauty The stone that first opened upon a circumscribed universe of personal memories ultimately gives us access to something transcendent: a continuous but timeless creation of correspondences, within which wisdom and profound accord are apparent. In deciding to address the darkness within, in taking that step, we embark on the discovery of beauty.

Inlets is a guileless report by an artist who insists on his membership in a human community. It makes clear, in a straightforward way, the relevance of art in our daily lives. And it is a message of hope, about the world at large and for each of us who has gazed on a dark interior and wondered how we could fathom darkness in ourselves— whether, indeed, it could even be addressed. One who lives among us says that it can.


Barry Lopez, McKenzie River, Oregon January, 1990 essay ©1990 by Barry Holstun Lopez

Guggenheim Foundation Fellow (1987) Barry Lopez received an American Book Award for his 1986 best seller Arctic Dreams, one of many works he has written about natural history, travel, and the environment.