©2010 Alan Magee, acrylic on panel, 10 x 8"
Wer Bin Ich? (Who Am I?)
By Ronald Bernier, Forum Gallery, NY, 2010
Having survived the formalist reductions of modernism, the theoretical convolutions of the post modern, and the social disengagement of both, recent painting and sculpture is once again comfortable in the company of the Real, once again distinguished by observational skill, technical mastery, and credible subject matter. But it is a different and edgy sort of Real; it both is and is not a re-presentation of the contingent and particular world. To be sure, there is recognition, but it is recognition extended well beyond the reassurances of realism. So what is it, exactly, that we are meant to “recognize” in the work of contemporary artist Alan Magee? It has to do fundamentally, I think, with seeing the particulars of this world and finding its complexity, revealing the tremor of the essential in the ordinary.
Like many artists today Magee positions his work, self-consciously and self critically, within the language of its own tradition—Art—appropriating, reframing, reusing and re-casting its conventions in a visual and intellectual (and not in frequently humorous) dialogue with art history and art making, mixing historical allusion with contemporary self awareness. Take, for instance, the artist’s evident self- reflexivity in Chronicles and Der Künstler, or the more subtle references to his craft in his tributes, Herr Friederich, Reading Bonhoeffer, and Tante Käthe. Then there are the echos of Gothic devotional sculpture in St. Vitus (4th-century patron saint of actors, comedians and dancers with his iconographic attribute of torture—a cauldron, updated with a more modern gas burner), and clever references to early Modernism’s obsession with African votive figures in Divination, Gabon, and Oracle. But unlike many of his postmodern contemporaries, it is far more than knowing self-reference. Smart aleck irony, and semiotic play with convention. There is an astute crossing of boundaries here between history and art, fact and fiction, what literature folk refer to as “metafiction”. That will do as a useful descriptor, one that suggests a discourse, an art, like Magee’s, which places itself on the borderline between fiction and criticism, between art and life, between representation and history—a self-consciousness of the artifice of art and a reflexive awareness of constructing meaning. That is, I think, what we are to make, not only of works like Der Künstler,—in effect a portrait of the artist with the efficiency of symbol—but also An Improbable Monument, a bricolaged statuette brandishing both mirror and pen, on the one hand (literally) emblem on mimesis and self scrutiny, and on the other, weapon of the literary and graphic artist. But why “improbable”? Better yet, at less than fifteen inches tall and faceless to boot, why—or in what sense—a “monument” at all? The answer, perhaps, figures in Magee’s other unlikely heroes remembered here.
In more somber tribute to the committed Nazi-resister, Ernst Friedrich (1894-1967) is represented by a simple black-and-white archival photograph tenderly overlaid with the artist’s brush and Magee’s signature stones. Founder of the Anti-War Museum in Berlin in 1926, and the author of War Against War (1924) which unflinchingly documents the appalling human consequences of war and the political hypocrisies that sponsor it, Friedrich waged a lifelong battle against the barbarism of modern warfare and its nationalist rhetoric. The affectionately titled Tante Käthe functions similarly as a “counter-monument” to the German socialist, pacifist and artist, Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). Known for her compassionate portrayals of the human degradations of war and poverty. Kollwitz’s searing images, never literal illustrations, were nevertheless based of realist expressions of misery and courage, the artist herself having known the pain of losing both son and grandson to world war, a suffering captured in the doleful face of the “documentary photograph”. And then there is Reading Bonhoeffer, an elegy to the German Lutheran pastor and theologian, also a participant in the German Resistance movement, whose one view of anti-war resistance was filtered through a deep understanding of Christianity’s role in the secular world. A student of the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr while still a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1930, Bonhoeffer became acutely sensitive to social injustice from the perspective of those who suffer oppression: he was a man dedicated to faith, resolved to practice the teachings of the Gospels in an incarnation ethic he called “costly grace”. It is not incidental that Magee’s “portrait” of this man of peace is configured in the shape of a cross fashioned from paintbrush and tape, and with a strong note of self-questioning inscribed in the words “wer bin ich?” (Who am I?) taken from the refrain of one of Bonhoeffer’s prison-house poems but clearly intended for the modern viewer—what “costly grace” can we claim? The title of the work itself asks us to read (to examine or interpret) the author of Letters and Papers from Prison and The Cost of Discipleship (1940s) and to consider what art means to follow the urges of conscience in a contemporary war-riven world.
This, then, is my point about the metafiction of Magee’s work. His is an art that complicates the relationship between fiction and history, specifically by challenging the separability to the two discourses. It is commonly accepted that here is a dissimilarity between assumptions underlying these two types of reference. History’s “documents” are presumed to be real; fiction’s “accounts” are not. But what Magee’s art teaches us in incorporating the represented past—archival photographs, commemorative stamps, and “postmarked” communiqués from New York (1930), Tegel military prison (1944), and Flossenbürg concentration camp (1945)—is that they are equivalent modes of (re)cognition. We only know or recognize “reality” as it is produced by cultural representations of it. As viewers of Magee’s work we respond to the material of history with an awareness of both its fictionality and its basis in real events. Magee’s real is invented; it is elaborated by the way the conditions of representation—the medium itself and the psychological adjustments it invites—become absorbed into its content. There is, in fact, a long tradition, dating from Aristotle, that declares fiction not only separate from, but also superior to history, the latter a mode of writing limited to the representation of the contingent and particular. Magee’s art suggests that to re-present the past in fiction—in art—is to open it up the the exigencies of the present and to prevent it from being conclusive. After all, we still need to ask ourselves, “wer bin ich?’’
Ronald Bernier is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Humanities at Wentworth Institute of Technology based in Boston, Massachusetts, and former Director, Sordoni Art Gallery at Wilkes University