Dolls were never this freaky

JIM GLENN THATCHER
©Maine Times
October 4, 2001

Alan Magee's Undercurrents (at the Atrium Gallery, Lewiston-Auburn College, through Oct. 27) is an aptly titled exhibit. At first glance, much of it might seem a multimedia fest of the morbid and macabre—a celebration of the nightmare fears of childhood or the excesses of the adolescent imagination. Some of these works do rise from those sources, but they are also much more than that.

"Works from my back-room," Magee has fittingly called them. They are expressions of the urges on which art, culture and "civilization" attach their underpinnings.

Often rising from the most mundane of objects (bones, stones, parts from antique dolls, an old paintbrush) or from more traditional subjects (a pear, a skull, even historical masterworks) these images and small sculptures are rendered by the artist into new ways of seeing the world. This is a small show, probably several dozen pieces, but it is astounding in both its thematic reach and in the variety of media: sculpture and painting, collage, several types of print and photographic techniques, and computer-manipulated imagery. Like Horatio's skull, each of these pieces is small enough for the beholder to examine closely at arm's length, and large enough in its implications to give rise to visions far beyond the object itself.

Dolls play a large role in this exhibit, and doll parts, puppets and oddly formed anatomical skeletons. One piece, "Dissent," has a doll's head on a body of twisted wood, the body so un-worked, so natural in its appearance that it might be a found object, its limbs terminating in rusty screen door hooks that fasten it to its cuttingboard background.

There is work here that seems to have roots in the imagined beginnings of cultural time. See, for instance, the small sculpture group "Family," rising from crude, unfinished bases into visages of strange, abstract, primitive heads, rendered into an effect that inspires both irony and awe. As in much of Magee's work, technique is so subtly blended with "nature" that for all we know, we might be looking at a collection of grave goods from the tombs of ancient Nimrud. Other work here relates itself to ancient Egypt— the mummy-wrapped figure and the Sphinx are recurring themes—to the Renaissance, to Weimar Germany. There are works that have the feel of the sci-fi imaginings of early '50s America: "Painter" and "La Trabajara" are both sculptures of small robots, each made with great wit from found objects. And fittingly, Magee seems to be giving us all of this work through the cultural allusions of our own futuristic hold on the present.

Traces of his work from the ‘8Os— the portraits of stones (and I use the word "portrait" with only a touch of irony) that first brought Magee to wide public attention—crop up here and there, almost like frost heaves from popular memory. They serve here to tie the artist, especially in his meticulous relationship to nature, to the process of his own personal history, and hence into the wider history on which so much of this show serves as a commentary.