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Allie McGhee, Red Door; Passing Shadows; Purple Parallel; Black Door, 2020-21

Allie McGhee, Red Door; Passing Shadows; Purple Parallel; Black Door, 2020-21
Acrylic and enamel on canvas
Quadriptych; 72 x 200 inches (altogether), 72 x 48 inches (each panel)
Courtesy Harper's, New York

Throughout this exhibition, the art of Allie McGhee evokes such a youthful and uncompromising focus on variations in scale, texture, technique, and color theory that it defies any preconception one might have of an eighty-one-year-old artist. Everywhere you look, there are jazzy passages shaped by spills, scrapes, spatters, streaks, and strokes that challenge our sense of space, while the resulting visualizations eclipse everything from the complexity of our universe to the textures and colors of neglected objects. 

Born in West Virginia, McGhee was raised and educated in Detroit from the age of ten, graduating from Eastern Michigan University in 1965. By the mid 1960’s, the once thriving Motor City was devastated by white flight, and the exodus of automotive plants to the suburbs. At that time, McGhee’s art was influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, social and political injustice, the failure of a city-wide economy and racially motivated violence. 

McGhee’s art became less political and more formal in the 1970’s, when he looked to European and American Modern art and started to lean toward what he refers to as “the all.” Today, McGhee continues to explore the limits of self-expression in a search for the all-encompassing. He uses a multitude of tools to apply, move, disrupt, and mar his surfaces with mostly acrylic and enamel paint, instinctively balancing these various methods by leaving some things to chance, while other areas are resolved through selective editing. Subsequently, we are left with works such as the diptych Micro Dream (2020–21), which emits a feeling of an extremely alien place akin to what I imagine it would be like nearing a giant gaseous planet, sans the gravitational compression. 

In other works from the “Poured Paintings” series, McGhee reveals an endless range of expression and bold intentions as he does with Apartheid (1984), where a miraculous number of techniques command to the surface. You may note at the bottom left and just above the hay-like strokes of yellow ochre, there is a series of lines scribed into a cloudy area. The lines, which have a small amount of gray powder, look like they were done with brittle vine charcoal, while the X’s that dot the lines indicate barbed wire, perhaps referring to the depressive existence of segregated Black people in twentieth century South Africa. Conversely, in the upper bend of what might be a silhouette of a finger, McGhee scribbles a line into a small patch of rust colored paint with what looks to be a soft graphite stick, marks that tend to leave much more pigment than the aforementioned charcoal. Then there is the textured paint on the top left that looks like the artist added sand or Roll-A-Tex, giving that area much more tactile weight. These choices tell us much about “the all” that McGhee desires—capturing a representation of the convergence of a multi-dimensional world, combined with the artist’s willingness to use whatever happens to be in his grasp.

The quadriptych Red Door; Passing Shadows; Purple Parallel; Black Door (2020–21) provides a more structured read with its strong vertical forms and far less overpainting. Here, the artist shows more interest in how the types of paint interact, since the incompatibility of pours of acrylic and enamel result in numerous quarrelsome effects, from galactic swirls to crackling and quickly spreading resists. I would not be surprised if the artist also sprinkled a bit of coarse salt into the mix to produce some of the star-like highlights. Also of note is the overflow of the various pour layers over the sides of the stretched canvases that indicate these works are produced largely on the floor.  

A second series, the “Crushed Paintings,” begin very much like the “Poured Paintings,” with an added second significant step that both destroys and recreates each piece by folding, wrapping, or crumpling the painted surfaces. This harkens back to when McGhee was a child, and his mother would rescue what he thought of as failed drawings and happily smooth out and display them in their home. With Blues Wrap (2019), there is a deliberate emphasis on design and connectivity as the newly united edges match the adjacent stripes forming visual continuity, while the overall triangular shape offers positivity and presence. Windswept (2018), with its subtly jaunting form and a slightly misaligned pattern, adds a nice shift to the space it inhabits. Under its top fold, visitors may note that the artist added a reference to a treble clef, a direct reference to the influence of music on his aesthetic process.

Allie McGhee’s art is a stunning reminder that experimentation, a curiosity for our relationship to the vast universe, and the ability to incorporate the simplest realities of life can be a very fulfilling lifelong practice—D. Dominick Lombardi

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