Alan Magee: Graphis #332, March/April, 2001
by Sean Kernan
For years I have been trying to figure out how art works. I know it won't make me a better artist if I succeed, and I know it is partly an excuse for putting off my own labors, but it bothers me like a gap in my teeth that I can't leave alone.
So the chance to live with and think about Alan Magee's work over the years has given me a clear look into the creative process. An encounter with his work always begins with the beautiful physical presence of the piece itself. The concentration and artistry that goes into everything he does is evident, but the skill is also transparent, a clear window into heart of the work itself.
What shines out through Alan Magee's execution is that single, ineffable thing that I think making art is always about: it changes your consciousness, makes you see differently, wakes you up. I get a sense that I'm seeing it just a moment or two after the heart of the piece has been set down, and I get a vicarious shiver of pleasure gazing at-and into-his work.
Magee's skill is remarkable, but it is always in service to the insights that are inherent to the work itself. The art clarifies the thought. Or, as the Argentine writer Macedonio Fernandez said in a similar context, "I write only because writing helps me think." So while Magee's art makes demands on his technical skill, that skill lies on it lightly. The work doesn't arise from mastery, and it never falls back on it. It arises from awareness.
In this I find a surprising kinship with the work of Andy Goldsworthy, who uses an array of natural objects (leaves, thorns, handfuls of sand, frost, ice, stone) and a camera (a camera, for God's sake, the same thing I use) to make work that for me produces a transformative awakeness. It's as though the Buddha decided to make some art. Magee's work, different as it is from Goldsworthy's, has that same clear sight, that same continuous presence that one might find in a master of meditation.
As a student, Alan had wanted to paint the things he saw as a way of getting at the sense of meaning that they gave him. But abstract painting was in the ascendant in art schools at the time, so he turned to studying illustration (at Tyler School of Art and at the Philadelphia College of Art). After graduation he practiced illustration for more than a decade. An illustrator, he said, is pragmatic about materials and will use whatever tools will serve the assignment he has been given. So Alan acquired his set of tools while at art school, but didn't acquire someone else's point of view.
There is a time, just after one's education, when one wonders how he or she is going to kick a toe-hold in the ice of the world and start the climb. Magee's toehold was his early success as an illustrator. A year out of school, he got a high-visibility commission for the cover of Bantam's edition of Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion, and then went on to do covers for New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, as well as a number of covers for Time.
So there he was, revving up on illustration's fast track.
And yet…after a decade or so, many of us who migrate to the commercial realm to make a living wake up at some point and see that that magic that drew us to art in the first place is missing. Only a few of us correct course.
This is what Magee did.
As it happened, he found a wonderful project that functioned as a bridge back into art. It began with a close look at beach stones during a visit to Block Island and later at stones along the Maine Coastline. It was in 1976 that he began work on a series of large canvases of these stones-realistic in style but suffused with a kind of preternatural presence.
These paintings depict stones that seem to have been arranged by natural forces into an almost holy architecture that points silently toward the vast processes of the universe. The calm, almost luminous quality of these stone paintings attracted attention and became the basis for his first book, Stones and Other Works, published by Abrams in 1987. The stone paintings were so compelling and so widely seen and sought after that, in spite of the range and fluidity of his work, Alan became known as a Realist. And it was looking at this work that made me consider what it was that a realist does. It clearly has little to do with the reality someone might encounter on a visit to the same beach.
For example, during one visit to Alan's studio I saw a large stone painting he had nearly completed. Taped to a wall next to the canvas was a small color photograph of a rocky beach, the colors distorted by cheap processing and months of studio sunlight. The photo was apparently the model for the painting on the wall-except that it looked nothing at all like what was on the canvas. The painting was as complex and resolved as a symphony, the photo was just of a pile of stones.
Where did these painted stones come from, if not from what Magee saw? I think they are from the same place that Don Quixote or Ahab came from, the same place an interpretation of Hamlet comes from, the same place that Mozart and jazz, poetry and Chris Burden's compulsive works come from-from inside the artist. The painting was provoked by stones Magee had seen on the beach, but its power and life came from the heuristic process that is the central mechanism of art. He had taken the very solid stones into himself and given back these painted stones, as real as anything could be, composed of memory and attention and something else.
And it is this process-this something else-that is critical. I have come to feel that art is brought into being by what happens when an artist pays fierce attention to what the rest of us tend merely to look at. It's not just that the artist sees what the rest of us miss, but that his ferocious attention actually brings its object into his consciousness and changes the very structure of the brain. This enlargement of consciousness that happens between the taking-in and the giving-back-out is the thing that gives art its transformative power. (For a discussion of this see neurologist Antonio Demasio's exciting book, The Feeling Of What Happens.)
So it is this process, coupled with his painterly skills, that gives Magee's realist work its deep power and resonance. He paints a row of discarded spark plugs, scarred by use, linked somehow to all the processes of combustion, metallurgy commerce, life and decay. And in the painting these bits of detritus become as grand as Stonehenge. The artist's heightened attention that has made them so. I want to articulate my response to them, but I'm reduced to silence in the presence of the work.
But, here's the important thing: it's not an empty silence, it's a kind of charged state, very awake, intense, full of new possibilities. As Paul Valéry said, "seeing begins when we forget the name of the thing seen.”
Magee's work rewards our deep stare because he looks so deeply into things himself. His own working process (I have watched him at work) is immersive and total-the compass of his thoughts might, at any moment, simultaneously include Flemish portraiture, the surface qualities of rusted bolts, the imagery of Dante or the spiky, awkward prose of the Germano-Mexican writer, B. Traven. As you look at one of his works you can almost hear a soft click in your mind, like the pins lining up in the tumbler of a lock.
To those who know Alan Magee only in his realist aspect it can be bit of a shock to see his other work. Each series of his work is so varied, and so complete, that it seems he harbors multiple artistic personalities, no one of which takes anything away from any of the others. He brings to mind artists of the Italian Renaissance who were expected to paint, sculpt, and, in a pinch, build a duomo.
In the mid-1980s, for example, Magee became intrigued with the possibilities of animated film and set out to learn the various skills involved in film production. Along the way, he constructed puppets (many of them possessing an austerity not usually associated with the name) that evolved into a series of carved and assembled sculptures. That series of diminutive figures continues, although Magee has put aside his film work. Perhaps it will come back, perhaps it served only to prompt the sculptures.
Then there are the recurring formidable stone doorways, images gleaned from an early trip to Italy, that continue as a theme throughout Magee's work-sealed doorways that don't allow passage through the wall, that have become frames for any number of characters and artifacts, stages for small but riveting dramas.
Another body of work from the past decade is a series of black and white monotypes, most of them depicting human faces. Magee learned the monotype process in the Sonoma, California studio of his friend, Joseph Goldyne, but went on to adapt the monotype to his own unconventional ends.
Magee's monotype faces seem the antithesis of the celebrations of beauty found in his realist works. The human faces have a kind of animality that disturbs, while the animal faces have a nearly human intelligence that is unclouded and somehow unthreatening. They are, in their way, as disturbing as the stones are affirming. It is tempting to think that because they came later, their darkness overcame the serenity of the stones. But, Alan sees them as expressions of the abrasions and anxieties borne, on occasion, by all humans and alternating with relative serenity. He explains that art must encompass both darkness and light if, in the end, it is to be of any help to us. He quotes Emerson's words, "He knows but half the universe who has never been shown the house of pain."
The faces in the monotypes seem roughly made, with Frankensteinian sutures that seem to stitch up scratch marks on the partially-wiped plate itself. Here Magee's work is in part about the making of art as a metaphor for the slow acquisition of wisdom. This echoes that of another earlier work in which the tools of the artist (a pencil sharpened like a dissecting needle) and odd artifacts (dolls eyes and cherry bombs) combine with a perfectly rendered reproduction of a Flemish painting on top of a stack of worn envelopes. This whole assemblage is painted in perfect trope l'oeil. Thus art and the artifacts merge on the page and in the mind. The whole work becomes a picture of thought, of the layers of perception, of revelation and the subsequent shift of the mind–all in one image that unfolds as you look at it, then folds back up, then unfolds again. You can feel it all happening. You hear that click in the mind.
A whole aspect of Magee's opus, then, celebrates art itself, the compression of stages of revelation over a lifetime into layers on the canvas. I sense that in making the pieces of art work he is really assembling a single work, and that the individual paintings, monotypes, sculptures and collages are signs of his process, shavings from it in a way. If we look at the work from this point of view, we get a glimpse of the changing and deepening of the sensibility that is the real outcome of this kind of labor. Thus the ultimate mystery of Art can be seen in Magee's work, but it is not spoken directly. Or, as the poet James Wright put it, "Poetry (for which we can read Art) is the shadow of the dog. It lets us know the dog is around, but the dog is elsewhere, and always on the move.”
So when I look at Alan's work and think about his art, I entertain myself by pulling the pieces apart and tossing them around, but none of the parts account for the attraction of what he does, and there's always that last tantalizing bit that I can't get at, even though I know it's the most important part. Analysis gets me to the edge of intellect, but the artwork itself is the vehicle that takes me beyond that edge. Words die out, and the art goes on, as consciousness embodied.
Sean Kernan is a photographer, filmmaker, and educator. He is the author of Secret Books, Among Trees, From Prison, and Ritratti Romani