The N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art opened a large exhibition of work, Now & Then, by the veteran artist Allie McGhee on April 15, 2016. A Detroiter who attended Cass Technical High School and completed his undergraduate work at Eastern Michigan University in 1965, McGhee was born in Charleston, West Virginia. “As an artist I have always been inspired by the diverse rhythms of our environment,” McGhee says. “It has been a great reserve of energy for my work. In my recent works instead of seeing the natural world as a rational observer, I see if from within as if through a telescope or microscope.”
For the most part of this exhibition, these works hang on the wall as three-dimensional reliefs, made of paper and mixed media. These delicate creatures of raw substance seem as though they may start out as flat painted material and then folded to form a cumulative formal beauty underscored by a diverse paint surface. McGhee’s emphasis on discovered and spontaneous correlations that are twisted, crushed and crumpled, remind this writer of John Chamberlain, who worked in a similar fashion but mostly with metal and automobile parts. Given the time period of Allie McGhee’s formative years, the obvious influence here is Abstract Expressionism with shades of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline that, despite a seemingly spontaneous appearance, maintains a balance of chaos and control.
In his biography, McGhee says he favors using sticks to apply paint rather than brushes. Rejecting the brush, he pulls and scrapes the paint across his material, whether it is canvas or paper. The action of the stick allows McGhee’s hands to interact with the paint and the surface in a visceral way, where the thin paint spatters as he arranges his lathe-like constructions. In Rainforest, there are a variety of parallel bars that play against the light and abstract forms caused by the folds. These are forms we see in nature and our urban environment, making them familiar, if not inviting. He reveals his ability to make something interesting out of the mundane.
Not all of the work is on paper. Visit is a piece on folded canvas that has been coated in fiberglass and painted with loose strokes of paint. McGhee has said his work is informed by science, and refers to imagery that is close up, like through a lens, but it’s easy to see a shallow grid and re-jostled composition that works against formality. These works are a change from the flat abstractions of ten years ago with ovals and space-like compositions. The new works are flat ideas that have taken on the third dimension of physical depth and engage the viewer with draped compositions of muted color and a play on light.
Like a worship robe that hangs waiting to be used, Sacred Wrap, could be a garment waiting to be worn for a special ceremony. The subtleties in white, blue and black are mixed media material on paper that come off the wall enough to cast deep and dramatic shadows. Whether inspired by science or the music of Eric Dolphy, Allie McGhee brings a nostalgic feel to these texturally rich reliefs that feel both powerful and lightly sensitive.
The N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art opened a parallel exhibition by Carole Harris, a fiber artist who uses traditional quilting techniques to make abstract expressionistic compositions. “My work relies on improvisation,” Harris says. “I am fascinated by the rhythms and energy created when I cut and piece multiple patterns. I let the fabric and color lead me on the journey.”
For visual artists who quilt, Harris’s work transcends the traditional expectations we think of when mentioning quilting. In a reproduction, we see an abstract painting, dynamic in the use of color, line, shape and form. It’s only on closer observation that one realizes these are compositions executed using embroidery, stitchery and multiple patterns of cotton, silks and hand-dyed fabric.
N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art Allie McGhee Now & Then April 15 – June 25, 2016