James Magee

Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas

Darryl Lauster

James Magee, Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No, c. 2000; wine bottles, Cadillac El Dorado hood, front end loader, Ford Taurus trunk, scrap steel; 33 x 59 ¾ x 6 ¾ inches; courtesy of the artist and the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas

James Magee, A Row of Summer Maples (closed), c. 2003–07; terracotta (clay, Elmer’s glue, and pigment), broken glass, rubber, Goop, poured lead; 70 x 109 x 8 ½ inches (closed), 70 x 132 ½ x 8 ½ + inches (open); courtesy of the artist and the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas

Revelation: The Art of James Magee, organized by the Nasher Sculpture Center, follows exhibitions by Jaume Plensa and Rachel Whiteread in a series highlighting the work of mid-career artists making significant and acclaimed contributions to the field. These shows are shaking up the Nasher in a very commendable way, providing viewers refuge from the “all bronze all the time” look that, more often than not, defines sculpture of the traditional or academic canon. To borrow Magee’s penchant for poetry: Here, there is no bronze. Here, there are many bits of things...

There are nails, straw, steel, lead, surplus, chrome, bolts, nuts, wood, dirt

glass, glass, glass, glass, glass, glass, glass, glass

paint, iron, cumin, hibiscus, paprika, honey, wax, shells,

time,

and the desert.

Frankly, Revelation is a terrible title for an exhibition—it’s one of those words whose connotations are too naively ethereal in our current condition of postmodernity. The world does not need more revelation. The world needs to think more pragmatically.

But James Magee is not responsible for the world. And despite its title, the exhibition is a handsome and competent one, worthy of rigorous aesthetic dissection. Much of the work is a Minimalist nightmare—tight compositions based not on reductive color and form but on repurposed material dripping with the resonance of its former life. In Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No (c. 2000), a Cadillac El Dorado hood and Ford Taurus trunk sit flatly together, appearing to grin over their ability to exist as both non-objective art and auto bodies alike. Diptych (Salt Pours) (c. 1996–98), composed largely of military glut, is similar in this sentiment but more powerful in its material physicality, and arguably the standout sculpture in the show. While formally dynamic in synthesizing linear and planar components into a satisfying rhythm, Diptych (Salt Pours)’s real punch comes from its haunting and timely appearance amidst an unsettling national debate over the inadequacies of technology to confront twenty-first-century insurgencies.

As the first major exhibition of the El Paso-based artist in eighteen years, Revelation clearly gives the impression that Magee is an avid collector of industrial detritus. Utilizing the practice of assemblage, his wall-based reliefs communicate an alchemic sensibility. Rust slowly eats steel. Paint slowly decays. Glass returns to sand. His works sustain echoes of Robert Rauschenberg, but are less impish. And, while sharing some compositional similarities, they are less fragile and less emotive than the work of Joseph Cornell. In several instances, Magee seems to intentionally deny the viewer an emotional or psychological connection to the work, making it subsequently more compelling by means of a conspicuous disconnect. But in other instances, this practice of leaving us wanting seems an unintended misstep or shortcoming.

Noah (c. 2000–06) and Tonight A Cold Rain Falls (c. early 1990s) are good examples of the former. A substantial work, Noah’s awkward mass seems to desire order but cannot have it, at least in a resolved aesthetic sense. Purposefully, the construction remains less than the sum of its parts, like the biblical world that once was destroyed. Tonight A Cold Rain Falls hangs as a flat, inert plane, severing any potential dialogue with the viewer. The unfeeling steel is uncomfortably impenetrable. Viewing it is like looking at something that does not look back. By contrast, My Cup is an Ear Upon the Sea (1998) falls to gimmick. Winter River (2004) and Mine Shaft (c. 1995–98) lack complexity, and A Row of Summer Maples (c. 2003–07), the largest piece in the show, is less than dynamic for all its size.

It’s worth noting that glass is the single most utilized medium in Magee’s arsenal. Pane glass. Tempered glass. Soda glass. It’s everywhere, leaving one curious about its potential symbolism. But the purpose of glass here does not seem to be aesthetic, as the material is not touched with any gentle nudge toward beauty. Nor does the use of glass emphasize transparency outside its conventional role as a glazing device. It is not structural or ephemeral in any gravid way.

Perhaps this element and its usage returns one to Magee’s relationship with the desert. Figuratively, it is a place where things go to die. There is a poignant archaeological subtlety to Magee’s work wherein he offers the mortality of material as a metaphor for our transience. Amidst other less compelling aspects, this is the great strength of the exhibition and the most successful aspect of Magee’s process on display.

But viewers should not think of the artist’s work as overly entropic in any way. It cannot be understood solely in gestures of loss or degeneration, which a glance at Magee’s sketchbooks will confirm. In fact, the sketchbooks may be the best component of the show, even if they are mercilessly confined to a vitrine outside the gallery. One wants in. One wants to read the notes and dissect the lines—a frenzied synthesis of Mondrian’s geometry with the shuddering anxiety of Piranesi. The drawings are a fury of rhythm locked in stasis. And, as such, the perfect counterpoint to the sluggish decay of all things.

Darryl Lauster is an artist and Assistant Professor of Sculpture/Intermedia at The University of Texas at Arlington.

This exhibition is on view through November 28, 2010.

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