Alan Magee with “Double Page” (Photo ©David Wright)
Alan Magee with “Double Page” (Photo ©David Wright)
Alan Magee has been one of America’s best-known and -loved artists since the 1980s when he began to produce literally hundreds of covers for magazines and novels that entered the national imagination almost subliminally as one of the pleasures in the consciousness of readers.

Since those very early years of his practice, he has received awards of distinction and excellence wherever he has exhibited across the world. His work includes paintings, prints, sculptures, tapestries, books, videos, and, of course, on every scrap of paper, “scribblings,” as Magee calls them — sketches and doodles where his ideas tumble into form.

Throughout all this incredible output and all the kudos, the artist’s persistence, consummate skill, and innate humanity are the steady undercurrents that can apparently make anything happen, anything.

Where does an artist with this level of skill go?

Admirably, Magee never takes his skills for granted. He has earned them all with a consistent ethic of hard work and use of imagination. Perhaps, in first encountering his art, one notices the fineness of detail in every millimeter of subject and ground. This highly developed representational quality is quietly stated, but it’s also impressively forceful, almost difficult to grasp in its intensity and consistency. One wonders, “How is this possible?” But as the work reveals itself, one begins to accept the all-over matrix of fine detail as an amazing ground within which Magee’s very personal messages appear.

Magee came to Maine in 1976 as part of a search for transition in his art and life. “I wanted to write my own stories rather than read and illustrate others’,” he says. In that search, a friend led him to Pemaquid Beach, where his life was changed by discovering the timeless beauty of the beach stones there. In a years-long series of large and small paintings still in process, Magee arranges the huge, soft-edged stones in apparently random, but actually narrative, formations that open one’s eyes to the stories embodied in every rock beneath our feet, the way they can speak to us, and for us. Every stone we blithely pass each day is many millions of years old, and each reveals its story, if it has a reader.

Magee is our reader. He composes with these densely compressed but delicate volumes of pink, grey, and cream-colored granite, tumbled for centuries against each other in a kind of friendship. Dancers or talkers, they congregate and calm the eye. Soft-edged, pleasant and hefty to lift and hold, they are grounding images for a drifting soul.

Outcroppings of random, white quartz lines could be subterranean runes, not quite decipherable. The completely convincing illusion of exact representation turns out also to be a highly developed abstraction. There is so much to see in an Alan Magee!

Where else does an artist go with such a fully developed palette of skills and perceptions?

In both the film on Magee, “Art Is Not a Solace,” which had its premiere at last weekend’s Camden International Film Festival, and in several conversations last week, Magee talked of his ideas and practices, and especially his life views.

In 1990–91, with drums beating for war with Iraq and protestors in the streets, a friend in the State Department confided that public opinion would mean nothing to the war machine already in motion. Magee was horrified at the inevitability of the government’s cold carelessness for the thousands of human lives about to be lost. He had to act and began making a series of monotypes that revealed a universal empathy for what was about to befall so many. Beyond particular politics or sides, the images come from Magee’s deep empathy for both human suffering and the cruelty that creates it, for the ravages of war, where both losers and winners suffer grievously, where lives end savagely, leaving intense grief.

The universality across time crystallizes for this writer in the sculpture “Drone Diptych” (2011), two panels in which the crushed and crumpled vessel of a baby doll’s body, eyes closed, mouth open, emerges from rubble-strewn sand. Play war, prescience of real war; I am vividly reminded of the small body of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, who drowned heartbreakingly in 2015, his family trying to reach safe haven in Europe. Four years or 400 years, war continues despite us. And art, despite its power, is not a solace.

To make a monotype, an artist rolls ink onto a metal plate and begins to wipe, scrape, and scratch with commonplace tools like paper towels, cardboard strips, palette knives, brushes. If you look, images will appear, then disappear. They ask questions, guide your hand and eye, maybe break your heart. Magee is open to the wonderful yet terrible mystery of all this as he confronts the battered, bandaged, broken and sutured faces that emerge.

“I don’t know where they come from,” he says, “but the faces helped me to recognize our inner war-like tendencies that have caused endless suffering through the ages. There are always new rationales for war, but it’s always going to have the same result. Our power to change what’s coming is limited, but I feel a sense of responsibility to speak up and resist.”

Magee’s work is a call to action, as an artist, as a human being. In the film, Magee quotes Czech statesman Václav Havel: “When as an artist you are called an ‘enemy of the people,’ how do you respond? It starts by trying to do your work well.”

Magee himself says, “When I look at something that makes me feel like picking up a pencil and going back to work, I know that is good art! That’s the best response you can get, ‘I’m going to get my crayons right now!’”

Dear Reader, maybe you could start by planning right now to attend the next screening of “Alan Magee: Art Is Not a Solace,” at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, September 27, at the Strand, followed by a reception and Q&A at CMCA. Then you could continue to respond by visiting Dowling Walsh Gallery before this show ends on September 28.