The Tiber, 2006, polychromed wood with attachments, 36 x 45 x 3 inches
Time Pieces, Forum Gallery, New York
by Ted Tally, 2006
It is the particular gift of Alan Magee to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.
Two nearly empty tubes of paint lean slightly towards one another, as if lovingly, or perhaps only for support in their mutual exhaustion. One tube is larger, one much smaller. Madonna and child? Mentor and pupil? They are much creased and stained with hard service, and the smaller tube’s bottom has been rolled up, touchingly, like the cuffs of a child’s jeans. The painting is beautiful, yet tinged with melancholy. It is as if those two have sacrificed themselves, giving up their very essence in order to leave us this final, poignant self portrait.
An antique lithographic plate, a delicately-figured illustration of dinosaur bones, has been exactly transposed into paint, then fixed to a board or wall by strips of equally trompe l’oeil masking tape. Across this unlikely field struts a striking figure: a dark pair of shears, walking upright on its skinny handle-legs, its head reared back, sharp jaws agape, as if about to roar or pounce. There is wonderful wit here, in making us discover another dinosaur in a simple tool, but there is irony, too, for the steel mill and craftsman that produced such an instrument must surely be extinct themselves by now, leaving only such fossils for us to ponder.
In a beautifully polychromed wooden sculpture, a Roman door confronts us. With its muted streaks and hues. It’s like a massive palette of some giant unseen artist. The door, made os stout planks, is closed, heavily bolted. There are no numbers or words, no street address to help us orient ourselves. Is this a private house? A vault, a temple, a tomb? What mysteries lie inside? Are we being locked out, or is something being locked in? It’s an ordinary door, in one sense, but also something Other. It’s even possible that this might be a portal to another time, another world. If this door suddenly yawned open, like some terrible mouth, could we bear to witness what’s revealed?
In these and other works in the present exhibition, we feel, above all else, Magee’s great pleasure in the “thingness” of this world. There are no landscapes here, no human portraits or traditional still lifes. Yet the greater world is ever present in microcosm, and each intimate object is richly suffused with emotion.
Often it is the humblest of these objects that capture his attention—a bone, a stone, an old paintbrush. Magee insists on the unique physicality, the personality of each subject—this iron bolt, and no other—and his extraordinary technical facility then renders that bolt with a weight and density that tempts us to lift it from the canvas.
Yet there is something much richer than mere reproduction going on here, something more elusive, evocative, even spooky. Here is figurative art whirling into a kind of abstraction. For in the intensity of this enchanter’s gaze, a mysterious alchemy occurs: suddenly we are looking not at a particular bolt—rusted, curving, just so—but also somehow at its spirit. The commonplace becomes iconic, haunting, as we realize with a little start, that Magee is offering us nothing less than a glimpse into the souls of all tools: sturdy, faithful, neglected, a little bit sad.
With all of Magee’s works, whether it be paintings, sculptures, monotypes, collages, or tapestries, and through all his diverse subject matter, we are seduced by just such musings, and struck by some common chords. There is sensuality, of course, delight in the sheer pleasures of color, form, texture, and the intricate rhythms of both natural and manmade design. There is humor, also, in the form of teasing visual puns, intricate allusions and illusions. We sense the artist’s wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. Here is narrative, too, a conviction that even simple household objects have stories to tell us, perhaps even lessons to teach, if only we will commit ourselves to seeing them mote truly and deeply.
But underlying all these chords is something more somber, and perhaps the greatest of all Magee’s themes: his acute sense of mortality. In this artist’s deeply thoughtful work, we sense, always and again, the careful, precise, unblinking appraisal of that which time takes away, and of that which remains.
Ted Tally, playwright and screenwriter, won an Academy Award for his screenplay Silence of the Lambs. Among his other works are plays such as Terra Nova, Little Footsteps, and Coming Attractions. Tally’s other screenplays include All the Pretty Horses, The Juror, Before and After, and The Red Dragon.