Alan Magee, Intensity and Realism

John Caponigro
Preview Magazine
July 12-July 19, 1991

Born in Newtown, Pennsylvania in 1947, Alan Magee began his study of art at an early age. Staying one semester at the Tyler School of Art, one year at Bucks County Community College, and a longer period at the Philadelphia College of Art, initially he studied illustration, because he found ”it was a good place to draw and paint representationally and get good criticism on it.” Studying illustration led to getting work. In 1976, after 10 years as a very successful illustrator doing magazine and book illustration, he moved to Maine. He moved intentionally to go to a place where there would be a certain resistance to taking on so many illustration jobs; that was of course before the days of overnight delivery and FAX. He wanted to phase illustration out in order to do more personal work. For a period he got even busier as demand for his work continued to grow. Gradually, time for that more personal work was made; the work most of us on the coast of Maine have come to know and love-strong work, sensitive work. After an opening on June 29, a window into the world of this wonderful artist is on display at the Farnsworth Museum from June 29th through August 18, before it travels on to Pennsylvania and Florida. The Museum has published a full color catalog that will be available there and nationally, through Tilbury House Publishers.

John Caponigro: The inevitable question, let’s get it out quick. Most people know you from your highly realistic paintings, especially stones. What was it that initially drew you to that kind of work?
Alan Magee: I think it was the need for an intense concentration on something tangible that would carry me through the transition out of illustrating. It was a very firm first stop to take. Something very solid, belonging to the world around me. My illustration work was surrealistic and quite detailed. It was often a symbolic, surrealistic response to a story. But I didn’t feel this style would really translate directly into a painting for myself. The very realistic paintings were a way to start-kind of a foundation to find out where my thoughts were going to go. I wanted to stand on a clear open road so my thoughts could move down it without distraction, which is the big problem with illustration; you’re always being sidetracked from one idea to a vastly different idea. Under those conditions it’s very hard for your mind to progress on it’s own, and I felt the realism was a good way to take stock of what was in front of me. I’d draw a skull or a group of stones or a fruit and then I’d draw the watercolors or the pencils that I was using. I kept the work very close and let it open up gradually from there.
I sensed something very beautiful in the stones, which is another way of saying that they seemed to be telling me, “This is good for you.” I think when I find something beautiful or compelling there’s usually a fundamental importance to it. It’s not a superficial attractiveness I’m talking about, the stones looked like something essential something that had work to do in my mind. And for that reason they looked very powerful, very beautiful.
One of the self-imposed, but not arbitrary, conditions that I placed on the realism was that I wanted to present a subject without any kind of enhancement or stylistic intrusion (which was very much a part of my illustration work). Fundamental to all this realism was a belief that if something is revealed to you outside of its function it would begin to speak for itself. If you show a pear without a plate and knife and a piece of cheese beside it, then the identity of the pear begins to speak. For that reason I kept things life-sized. The large paintings of stones are nothing more than a wider section of beach with very big stones on it. It's a presentation of that thing, a holding it out in my hands and saying, “Look at this.”

JC: And your consideration then was trying to make the distance between the viewer and the object seamless?
AM: That’s right. Not only seamless in a material way but also in a conceptual way, where I was taking the function away from that object. This pencil that I’m showing you is not a pencil to draw with. You have to look at it. And the paint tube-you’re not going to pick it up and squeeze the paint out of it. There’s something very stable, very still about this. I think film is wonderful, I think music is wonderful in that they move through time. But the great advantage of a drawing is that you can hold something still and give it the gift of not being subject to time. You can also free it from utilitarian or functional overlay that we put on everything that makes it very hard for us to see. So you hold the paint tube still, that tube will never be used, nor the pencil, nor the pear eaten. And for someone looking at that drawing years, centuries later it’s still in that same condition.

JC: Does that timelessness reach something akin to what you talked of when you spoke of fundamentals and essentials earlier?
AM: It’s a part of the reason for making these drawings, a part of their fundamental structure. I’m presenting something very fragile, fleeting like a stalk of asparagus-holding it very still saying, “Look at this.” The method of drawing that I was using in those days is an excellent tool for that kind of expression. Now I realize that, quite often, my intentions were mistaken by other people who think that I’m making a show of technique or trying to fool the eye with a piece of tape. People sometimes asked me if this was coming out of the tradition of Harnet, Peto of the American tromp l’oeil painters and it’s not. It’s a different concept entirely. However, I can see how it looks as if illusionism might have been the purpose. It really wasn’t. I was trying to build a foundation to a structure that I imaged myself building that would be my work over the coming years. This foundation involved looking at things with intensity, trying to use the eyes and the hands to bring this thing out and share it, not to make it illusionistic. In fact that’s quite different from my intentions.

JC: More specifically, what were your intentions at that point?
AM: I think to show the innate power still resident in a familiar object. If the conditions are set up correctly for a human being to see it, I think there’s a power when a neglected object is perceived anew. Because of the potential within a person to see, and the latent life in the object, a great power is set up. And that’s the essence of what I was trying to do. I felt it myself, all I had to do to realize it was to sit down for the week it took to do the drawing and to see that it was happening to me. I might say “Oh, I think I’ll draw a paint tube.” But it wasn’t until I started and really let all the complexities of this thing unfold that I thought, “That’s not a bad idea”. Painting this paint tube has taught me a lot. Not just how to draw but how incredible the thing is.

JC: It’s a kind of intense study which the viewer would than pick up on?
AM: This is what one would hope. Somebody will see that and be reminded not immediately of the use but say say “Hey, I can see. I can really look at this.” So that’s the idea. That’s the reason for that emphasis on realism.

JC: This show at the Farnsworth Museum, Alan Magee 1981-1991, displays more recent work, and you’ve been doing a lot of different kinds of work during that time. How would you characterize it and what led you to that place?
AM: I characterize it only by saying that it’s like a thread following a needle in my mind. I intended to begin work. And I think that’s all that anybody can say they’re going to do. I’m going to go into the studio today and I’m going to begin the work of my future. My experience has shown me that the process is hardly deliberate and pre-planned. You follow your own trajectory of learning. And that’s what’s happened. I think that starting with these very realistic works which above all were very innocent, and I think in the best sense I don’t mean that they were done intentionally naively, but they looked at the world exactly as it looked tangibly, at that moment. I think having started that way, life itself shows you that everything becomes complicated by time or affected by time. The process is one of the maturing of the images that I’d already started with.
Some of the new images seem very far afield from my early realism. I think of them as raw ingredients added to the pot of stew that’s already there on the stove. In the show, those elements appear just as they were made-raw. But it all adds to the development of the work. I still believe in realism as an important, viable mode for me to work in, but it needs to be, at least, on the same developmental stage where I am. The things that I know all have to add up to the work that I do at that moment.
The very different work that has come up over these ten years has been an attempt to keep the work true to that experience. It will no doubt evolve into something different, but I think you have to add the ingredients as you find them. If I’ve had a realization, I may want to make a piece about it; that’s a very instinctive and natural reaction for any of us to have. I’ve tried not to be in a position to feel that I can’t do it because I’m a gentle, realist painter and I can’t deal with this idea, it’s outside of my capacity. But if it’s within my capacity to think about, then it’s certainly within my capacity to express. That’s what we’re seeing in this show-the ideas just as they’ve come, and not diminished or turned away because I thought they were inappropriate to me because of an identity that I thought I had build up.I didn’t want that to happen, I don’t want that to happen.

JC: You’ve mentioned that you’ve seen a progression in your work. Is it mainly an intuitive progression?
AM: I think it is intuitive. I read something recently I thought I could almost have signed my own name to. It was something that Giacometti said when he was working on his slender figures. He said these figures are getting smaller and smaller and he was very distressed about it. It was a development he not only didn’t predict but didn’t particularly like. That strikes me as being a very accurate description of making art as I know it. Often developments take a course, not only unpredicted, but a course of their own making. If you submit yourself to a kind of process that you recognize as being somewhat greater than yourself, then you can’t govern the results, nor discipline them into being as you would like. One has to be open to these things. These good things come, these gifts that come naturally through the intuitive process, and you have the choice to enable them to flourish or to weed them out. You do need to have a less rigid definition of yourself in order to let them speak.

JC: You talk about something greater than yourself; do you have any sense of what you might be serving? Many artists might say that it’s simply the act of painting. How do you characterize it?
AM: This is a very hard thing to put into words but I think what we’re serving is our own potential, not individually but collectively. We’re given a great variety of experiences-joyful, awe-inspiring, tragic-and the task, it seems, is to give full voice to those things, to be as fully developed as human beings as possible. It’s quite easy to see what the alternative is because there are many other things that we could serve; our own reputations, our business, for example. It seems like what keeps putting itself ahead of those considerations is the inability to shut experience out of the work as it’s taking shape.
I think of the works of Goya, The Disasters of War and the Caprichios. Those are troubling works to a lot of people and I understand that, but those things give back so much because Goya’s saying, “I was there, I saw this.” Without moralizing, without comment, he presents experience. I see that as serving a very fine purpose in the long run, because it gives people that come along later, courage to look at their own experience, to be themselves, and to serve that thing in front of them, serve that experience.

JC: Serving that kind of experience doesn’t necessarily have to take shape in the form of art, does it?
AM: It doesn’t have to be art. Let’s say we can expand the brackets so wide that it can take in conversation and gesture and just about anything that a human being can do that has expressive potential. And I’d like to think about that right now. I’ve been particularly drawn to the folk arts in the making of my puppets for animated films. I don’t like to use the word primitive, but I mean anything that’s made in that kind of heightened innocence where a human being can be set free of the artistic rules that act as a governor on what the human mind can do. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to work in that state. I don’t know if it’s even possible for us, having gone through a so-called art education and then having been somewhat intimidated by a heavy overlay of art criticism. It’s a wonderful thing to see someone whose work is free of those considerations.
It’s fantastic. But not just so that we bring it back and say we’ve learned from it, or to appropriate its innocence in our sophistication-that’s something that reminds me of the primitivism show at the Museum of Modern Art, where people say, “Yes, this is great, I can do that.” Well that’s true, yes we can do that. It’s wonderful to learn from the conventions and try to integrate them into our work but it seems like the far greater lesson would be “can we learn to see the work like that?” It is very hard for us because we’re a society of independent little mythologies all walking around. We’ve got a tremendous job to do. Not only do we have to express the mythology but we have to invent it, because there isn’t one agreed on by us all and we can’t just take the fundamental life-enveloping mythology of the tribe and give it expression. If there is a contemporary American mythology, it seems to be quite alien to my way of thinking, which leaves the responsibility up to me and up to you to demonstrate what we do value, what the structure of our faith is. We have to determine that and make it work. It’s harder than it used to be in some ways.

JC: So art is not only asking people to look in new ways but it’s communication on a variety of levels?
AM: Yes. And something deeper than ideas, things that would be very hard to voice. There’s been so much written about slavery, for example and I think about the power of some of the dolls and folk art made be Black slaves in America. They convey a quality of understanding of that experience that is very difficult to express in any other recorded means that we have available to us. Some very intangible, fragile, yet powerful realizations are somehow transmitted through them.

JC: What other kinds of art inspires you now? And what other forces do you see at work in your life and your work?
AM: Right now is a very good time to ask me because I find while I began my work with an idea about what art should be, a kind of programmatic structure of what I liked, I find the gates to other kinds of work have gradually been opening wider and wider. I’m beginning to appreciate how important film has been to me, that means of expression that uses the arts of composition and time, narrative and character. Lately the films of Andre Tarkovsky-the Russian filmmaker-have corresponded to and enhanced life experiences I have had. Also Carl Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath. I saw Day of Wrath one day in art school when I walked into a film class that I wasn’t taking, and I immediately sensed there was something important here, waiting, something about what art was or could be. You sit there and are overwhelmed with the power of something and then you step back into your own life, like an illustration class, but something has changed in you because you know how good art cant be, how important it can be. A small piece of that stays in your mind.
Lately I’ve been trying to surround myself with as much of that powerful work as possible so that that space in my mind or my understanding is as vast as it can be. I go to works like these. Some Spanish realists. Not only realists: the painter Tapies’ work has been something for me to study and try to understand how his abstraction can have that power for me, because it does. Also Antonio Lopez Garcia, whose paintings I have liked. I’m beginning of see more of them and to understand the kind of intensity that can come out of the commitment to a single idea throughout a lifetime. What I’m saying is, I seem to be looking at, and moving towards, things that have very strong flavors, a lot of power. I used to say something when I was younger, in a kind of flip way, when I’d see something I didn’t like in art or felt was trivial. I would say to myself, “That doesn’t change my life.” And now I see there was really something fundamental to my nature in that remark. I’m looking for expressions through art that have such a solid grip on me that I will be changed. That’s, I think, the gift of art. That somebody can show us something, perhaps something that we already know, but show it to us in a way that we feel the ground slipping from under us, moving our imaginations-a challenge thrown to us to be better at what we’re doing, to take it more seriously. And at the same time, in that seriousness, I don’t rule out humor, because I think a lot of these arts that I have been talking about use all manner of human experience.
Maybe what we respond to deeply is art that’s truthful to life as we know it. It enables us to admit and accept that fact that we are truly moved by life itself. We are very touched by life. When a filmmaker, like Tarkovsky, can show us, as imaginative as his stories, something that touches us as being accurate to the life we know, then I think we are moved. I think that many artists today perhaps go too far from that. You hear the word tactics used a lot now-the schemes that we come up with that we use to promote ourselves. This is so far from what I’m talking about.

JC: You’ve been working in a variety of mediums. In addition to fine art, you still do the odd illustration job, you’ve been doing card and t-shirts for your own press, Darkwood Press, and animation. What does this kind of work offer you?
AM: Many things. I’m working through different challenges in the film than I am in, say, the t-shirts but I think it’s something that’s come to me during this stage of my life, the ability to take in experience undiluted. Some of the new works are photomontages that have a definite social and political slant to them, and it occurred to me that t-shirts were a very appropriate place for them to be seen because it removes them from the realm of amenity and high culture that one associates with an art gallery. Also, when a person wears a t-shirt with my image on it it’s an act of collaboration at that moment. There are two of us giving an expression to that idea. I love to see somebody walking around with one of my more outrageous t-shirts on; we share the joke at that moment even though that person doesn’t know I’m seeing him. It’s a nice feeling that’s quite different from seeing my painting on a gallery wall or having that painting purchased.
In the animation, I’m trying to work through overwhelming influences from the field of film-the surrealist films and the animated films that I’ve run across in the last five years or so. Dreyer, Tarkovsky, some of the German Expressionist films that I saw in college like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and when I saw the kind of films my friends the Quays were making, that added to the residual charge. Sometimes you can acknowledge an influence and pay your respects to it in a talk or in conversation. But I needed to give physical expression to my respect for film-to acknowledge its influence on me. I needed to make things move and understand what it was like to subject an object that I’ve made to time.

JC: You took the name Darkwood for your press from the first canto of Dante’s Inferno. Do you feel that reflects something about the way in which you work or the concerns your work reflects?
AM:In the Inferno Dante gave profound expression to the conditions one is apt to encounter at midlife, between, say , the ages of 37 and 41. We find ourselves in the midst of what we once held at arms length. Dante writes, “At the midpoint in my life I found myself in a dark wood and through I want to speak of things that are good, I must first speak of things that are not good.” I found this so familiar, so close to what I was experiencing then. I do believe that art is ultimately affirmative. We affirm the importance of life, the need for courage to approach life in a hopeful and optimistic way, but not through neglecting or simply turning away from the things that are troubling and that have a profound affect on us - to be expressed without being softened or treated metaphorically. A terrifying idea must be shown in all its horror. So the opening words from Dante had great meaning for me.
There’s another line I’ve come across recently in a poem from Rilke, who must be thinking about the mid-life experience and it sounds like he’s writing about the work of a painter. I think he may also be speaking about himself in using sight metaphorically when he says, ‘The work of the eyes is done now, it’s time for heart work.’ Another place I found a great concordance and comfort was Kierkegard, who said, “Life may be shaped so as to contain an aesthetic period, and later an ethical period, and finally a religious period.” I sense that it is a kind of transition or phasing out of the one to embrace the others. I can feel the waning or purely aesthetic concern, and while representational art is still very appealing to me and while it still offers great potential, I don’’t see its potential as lying in a purely aesthetic realm any longer.
I think these ideas have helped me to understand not only my work but all work. I’m fascinated to read a good writer’s biography. I want to know where that art sprang from. This concerns me because I’m fundamentally interested in how the human being functions creatively and how experiences from unexpected sources shape the personality. I’m now reading the great Graham Green biography by Norman Sherry, and it’s fascinating to see the way fairly insignificant, mundane sources have shaped a great writer. Very little has come to him from the influence of the great literary traditions, it’s come from experiences at boarding school and children’s books, things of that kind.

JC: You might even think of that in terms of chaos theory where the flapping of a butterflies wings in Texas influences the weather in Korea. But at the same time you wonder if it’s just our perception of that seeming like a little experience. Maybe that one experience was so strong even though it was in a very small realm of life that it left a lasting impression.
AM: Well, I think there’s something to what you’re saying. I think experience is never small. Sometimes the things that generate the experience can be mistaken for the experience. There’s one example I think about. It occurred to me recently that when I saw the film Frankenstein when I was about ten years old it was an enormously vast experience for me. When I saw it I felt like I had just entered the door to a huge attic whose curiosities I would never exhaust. Now I see that film again, and I see the Hollywood conventions and the silliness of it and I feel like I could put that film in a shoebox, it’s become relatively small, but the attic that it generated is still there. So the experience can be mistaken for the thing that generated it but the experience, especially a child’s, can open up these vast interior spaces and they stay. And that’s I think the important thing. The ripple of a thing like that can be seemingly insignificant but what has to be measured and taken into account is the space that’s opened up inside the mind.