The Art of Alan Magee: A Narrative in Images
The Alan Magee exhibit now at the James A. Michener Museum is as wisely plotted as a superior work of fiction. My advice to visitors to the show, which runs through January 25 and is definitely worth a trip to Doylestown, is to begin at the beginning and stay with it. Don't wander around or stray ahead. It would be like reading around in a novel. Having said that, there's no way to do justice to this exhibition without giving the plot away.
The literary context is established by Jonathan Weiner's introduction, which cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Franz Kafka, and "magic realism." Although it suggests an interesting context for the show, the term seems too facile a label for Alan Magee's work, which can be surreal, playful, grotesque, grim, bright, austere, and complex.
The artist's own comments, which accompany certain works, extend the context to science fiction and vintage horror movies. Some of the science-fiction book jackets he has illustrated are on display, and he credits the original James Whale/Boris Karloff version of Frankenstein as an early inspiration.
Descending the stairway to the Wachovia Gallery, if you stay with the idea of the exhibit as a book, you will see the last chapter on the wall in the form of immense woven tapestries. Save them for later and go straight from Wiener's introductory message to the first drawing, a pencil sketch of a scattering of bones and a palette done when the artist was four years old. Like the other two pencil drawings from his childhood (one of them a self-portrait of the five-year-old painter with brush in hand), it's placed above a mature piece in which the same aesthetic preoccupations are being explored and developed. As the artist's own commentary points out, the juxtaposition shows how his childhood efforts predicted "the interest and life" he would "live later."
When Mr. Magee mentions the impact of James Whale's Frankenstein, he doesn't stress his visceral reaction to a scary movie as much as he does the shock of glimpsing another darker world, a "nether realm" he calls "the underground." The characters figuring in subsequent "chapters" are definitely not from sunny realms. The stitched, bolted, fissured landscape of the Frankenstein monster's head can be seen in the stitches and lines scoring the mask-like faces in a series of grim monotypes (in Silence the mouth has been sewn shut) as well as on the doll-faces of tiny, wooden, otherworldly sculptures that might have come out of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights or from the mother-ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Princeton residents will smile to see a piece (watercolor, colored pencil on paper) titled Seminary showing a blow-up of what appears to be an actual postcard with a Princeton postmark from 1911 and a legible message ("a view of my dwelling place here at the seminary"). The Martin Luther stamp on the post card is dated 1983, however; so much for authenticity. This is not magic realism so much as realism playfully subverted.
The works that follow take playfulness to a dark extreme. Mr. Magee's sculptural underworld resembles a sideshow carnival of grotesques. Developed out of the artist's interest in animated film, these wooden puppets come from an imagination haunted by historical realities unknown to the five-year-old who drew the scattering of bones with which the exhibit begins. The mature artist confronts the crucifixion, the Holocaust, and various wars, most recently the Gulf War, which he cites as an influence on the black and gray monotypes he produced in late 1990.
These life (or death) masks inhabit the same underworld as the cigar-smoking death's heads and sculpted miniatures, the mannikin Christ with actual studs hammered through his hands, and the homage to Kafka depicting the doll-like author with a pencil-point instead of a hand standing in front of a weathered wooden box that represents the author's house at No. 22 Alchemists Street.
Jonathan Weiner's introduction to the show speaks of the contrast between the works Magee did on the "night shift" to those done on the "day-shift." If you have kept to the chronology of the show so far, you will wonder where the works from the day shift are hiding. The prevailing mood has been that of a night world faintly lit with occasional flashes of whimsy until you come to Ned's Cigar Store. The effect is like emerging from a phantasmagoria to find yourself in the warmly-lit corner of a Norman Rockwell interior abandoned by Rockwell's human stereotypes. Maybe they're all dead. Maybe the human race and all its nightmares have vanished. Or maybe it's only an illusion, like Ray Bradbury's small-town Illinois turning up on another planet.
If you came to this piece before instead of after the night world, it would deliver nothing comparable to the daylight impact it has here, near the end of the exhibit. The shop all but blows its warm breath in your face. You can smell the cigars, you can feel the heat given off by the brazier of glowing coals. This is one aspect of the show that definitely expresses "magic realism," but position it earlier and it would seem little more than photorealism.
The cigar store interior makes an effective transition to the concluding chapter of Alan Magee's narrative in images. Again, if the immense pastels of stones titled Quartet II, Solaris 2000, and Dolmen 1986 had preceded the darker work, the effect would be significantly lessened. Instead, you find yourself walking into a fresh, new, resplendent day world of smooth, subtly tinted stones that simultaneously transcend and express what might be called "realism" in a realm where the magic is not human or literary but natural.
These radiant objects are like manifestations of enlightenment. If you've followed the plot in the correct sequence, you will also be reminded of the opening statement made by the pre-school artist's patiently drawn scattering of bones that just as well might be stones. In the same way, the bald heads of the puppet sculptures anticipate the baldness of these primal rocks scored with cracks and seams that in turn recall the faces of the monotypes in Magee's nether realm.
Illustrator Barry Lopez's commentary says it best: "You look at a painting of stones as you walk out the door of the gallery and you're thinking how much you love your wife. How so? Because you came to life again in the presence of the painting."