Edgar Allen Beem, Arts Magazine, October, 1986
Alan Magee was a successful illustrator before he was a successful artist. His Time magazine covers and paperback novel covers for Agatha Christie and Yukio Mishima, among others were familiar to the general public before his name was known by gallery-goers and collectors. Yet even when he worked primarily as an illustrator, Magee maintained a strict distinction between his commercial art and his personal work. In his illustrations he often practiced a brand of graphic surrealism, but as a fine artist Magee possesses the soul of a new realist.
In his first solo exhibition since joining the new Schmidt Bingham Gallery, a gallery devoted primarily to representational art, Magee demonstrates that, unlike those artists who simply transfer a recognizable style or established content from one medium to another, he responds to the material properties and processes of the medium he is working in at the moment. The exhibition consists of monumental acrylic paintings of beach stones; mysterious montage drawings loaded with personal, poetic allusions; straight drawings of discrete objects, Such as animal skulls and automotive parts; sensuous monotypes of fictional doorways; and strange cliche-verre prints of chthonic stones and bones that seem to have been retrieved from somewhere below the surface of reality. Yet despite the diversity of media and subject matter, Magee's work is unified by the search for meaning that lies at the personal core of his artmaking.
In a sense, Alan Magee is an artist who has had to overcome talent in order to liberate his imagination. Back in 1980, when critic John Canaday bannered Magee in Saturday Review as "A Dazzling New Realist Painter," he was really only stating the obvious that Alan Magee is one of those individuals blessed with a preternatural ability to capture a likeness. Since Magee draws and paints like a dream, however, it is easy for the viewer to become seduced by the sheer technical virtuosity of his images. Thus seduced, the eye may not be able to see beyond the cunning surface of appearances to the metaphoric and metaphysical content of Magee's art. Magee's art is not about stones and bones, carburetors and transmissions, braids, and doorways. These are but the objective correlatives in his theology of things. Nor is his art simply about the act of creation and the artist's personal response to the phenomenal world, though in purposefully unfinished drawings that reveal the artist's hand, it is tempting to reach this preliminary conclusion. No, Alan Magee’s art is about the search for meaning and order in a material world.
Magee is best known for his large (often 5 x 8 foot) paintings of beach stones, images inspired by, but not directly copied from the stone beaches at Pemaquid near his Maine home and studio. In his stone paintings, Magee is concerned with the big forces at work in nature, not just the physical forces of earth, wind, sun, and water that have shaped and arranged the stones, but the teleological forces revealed and alluded to in the conformation of base rock.
Perhaps the best example of what Magee is after in his stone paintings is The Orrery a painting in which he uses an apparently random and naturally-occurring composition of beach stones to suggest a model of the solar system. At the center of the picture is an egg-shaped white stone, in real life perhaps the size of a human skull, in Magee's conceit perhaps the size of the sun. All of the other stones on this segment of beach seem to radiate from and pulse around this central object. Indeed, each of the beach stone paintings operates on some major principle of stasis or motion, always calling to mind and eye the correlation between the forces at work on the canvas and the forces at work in the universe.
In painting the stones, Magee begins almost as an action painter of the 1950s might, spattering and dripping paint onto the canvas. Through a painstaking process of masking out and refining each object, he ultimately arrives at a finished product that begs to be called "super-realism," yet in real and figurative terms, the stone paintings are about making the abstract real.
Magee's montage drawings make personal, rather than cosmic connections. They are like elegant little poems charged with meanings and associations only the artist might reasonably be expected to understand. In Adrian, a watercolor and color pencil drawing, for example, Magee draws a postcard-like portrait of a rather proper-looking, turn-of-the-century gentleman—Viennese, judging from the postmark the artist has drawn on the upper right corner of the photo. The portrait is bracketed by drawings of bone fragments and a string of extracted teeth lie across the bottom of the photograph. The bones are drawn onto the surface the photo portrait is lying upon, but the teeth are drawn to suggest that they exist in the same "real" space" as the portrait. Across the bottom of the photo, in the elegant handwriting of another age, is written a Philadelphia address. Magee is originally from the Philadelphia area and his montage drawings are often fraught with familial meaning.
Magee's monotypes, speculative pieces inspired by the doors of ancient Italian villas, are pure fictions. Only the artist's acute sense or intuition of what to leave out and what to alter saves these images from reading like illustrations. The doorways hang off the ground, apparently closed and unapproachable. Are they the doorways to perception? Better to think of them as passageways to another realm beyond the senses. For perhaps behind these closed doors lie the strange artifacts that well up out of the dense, black nothingness of the cliche-verre prints.
The obvious question one asks when confronted with one of Magee's cliche-verre prints is "What is it?" In fact, this very question seems to animate all of Magee's visual explorations. What is it? Infinitely faceted, pocked, and honeycombed objects, suggesting fossil bones and magical stones, make a silvery appearance more real than real in the black space of the prints. The untutored eye wants to believe these are photographs of ancient stones and bones, but in fact they are photographic prints made from little acrylic on acetate paintings. After working up an image on acetate, reversing the dark and light values, Magee uses the paintings like 11 x 14 inch negatives. What emerges from the photo emulsion are real images of things which do not exist. Magee has given physical embodiment to the unreal, and very convincingly so. If the cliche-verre prints mystify, this is definitely part of their function. The ontological status of these shimmering objects may be in question, but there they are for the eye to see. They are revelations.
The thematic unity of Alan Magee's art is the recurring concern for the most fundamental structures—ergo, stone and bone—underlying apparent reality. His art is a form of inquiry into the meaning of things. This exhibition might best be understood as a display of the evidence the artist has uncovered so far in his career. No doubt he will probe deeper and further before he is through.
Edgar Allen Beem is a journalist, art critic, and author of Maine Art Now (1990) and Maine: The Spirit of America (2000).