“It taught me a lot about what I didn’t want to see,” says Detroit artist and former EMU art professor Charles McGee of his experience as a marine in post-bomb Nagasaki. The quote comes from a video in the University and Ford galleries at EMU, where a retrospective of his work, Energy: Charles McGee at Eighty-Five, covers everything from Picasso-esque portraits painted in the 1950s to huge enamel paintings done this year. It seems a fitting epigraph to his work, since most of the pieces explode in violent zigzags of paint and operate on some level of abstraction–an exercise in choosing what to see.
McGee’s most recognizable works are the frenzied paintings and collages he’s been making since the 1980s. Although the paintings are highly abstract, with huge snakelike squiggles and a palette that alternates dizzyingly between neutral colors and electric primaries, the busy splashes often dance around human figures. The people in these paintings are abstract as well, usually just stark silhouettes with large heads and skinny limbs. Their pointy-fingered hands and sharp elbows, arranged hieroglyphically, suggest urgency, but it’s hard to tell whether they’re dancing or running. Their faces are generally blank, but some have wild eyes and huge, toothy grins that look far more manic than happy.
Several depict Noah’s Ark, but without the usual calm brown boat and sunny panorama of zoo animals. Instead, human limbs tangle with snakes and squiggles. Black and white jumbles with splotches of brightly colored enamel float in space. In one piece, a purple-spotted giraffe is the only recognizable non-snake animal. Although a couple paintings have “celebration” in the title, they seem more ecstatic than joyful. The flood of abstraction strands any sense of security, upturning the biblical story and clouding easy explanations. Some are cut out of metal, 2-D sculptures that discard even the refuge of rectangular borders.
McGee’s brooding charcoal drawings from the sixties and seventies are more visually accessible than his later work. In these, people are rooted in their surroundings, perhaps trapped in them. He achieves this effect by coloring the paper in with black charcoal pencil, and then drawing with an eraser, lifting out all the negative space.
Bodies aren’t sketched in; they emerge, giving the impression that they had always been there. Half a child’s face, imprisoned between a girl’s patterned skirt and the gridlike suggestion of a jungle gym, looks forlorn, wary, and weary–a common expression in these early drawings. One piece is a bird’s-eye view of people walking down a sidewalk. Their silhouettes bleed into the long shadows they cast on the concrete. In Dialogue, several people huddle together, their black hands and heads resting on top of their patterned shirts. Some of the erased lines that mark the clothing continue into the background, disregarding the body’s boundaries and putting the people in dialogue with the space. Although they’re less flashy than the later works, the gravity of these drawings commands attention and makes them the dark highlight of the exhibit, which continues into the new year.