114 Charles McGee

Born Clemson, South Carolina, 1924 / Lives in Detroit

“The creative mind continues always to test the parameters of conventional knowledge, forever in pursuit of new vistas. Trying to understand life, death, the totality of  existence, and the logic or order that governs our moral being is the forum from which all of my creative offerings extract meaning,” Charles McGee wrote in 1994. It is safe to say that he has lived this thought, since almost 25 years later, he is still pushing his limits as an artist. In so doing, he has changed the face of Detroit, the city he has lived in since childhood and where he has embraced intersecting careers as artist, curator, gallerist, teacher, author, and outspoken critic and champion of art in the city.

An aunt brought McGee to Detroit in 1934 from a sharecropper’s farm in South Carolina, where the uneducated boy had worked in the cotton fields. He had already shown interest in creating objects — whittling axe handles — and evinced some musical talent as well. Although encouraged to pursue the piano, he instead took every drawing and painting class available to him through the Detroit Public Library and the DIA. After service in the Marine Corps, he returned to Detroit and developed his welding and metal finishing skills at Briggs Manufacturing Company. Later he worked for the Corps of Engineers, first as a cartographer and then as a statistical draftsman. His mastery of these practical skills became the underpinning of the various approaches through which he has continually pushed and challenged himself in his studio practice.

His earliest style, realistic genre scenes delicately rendered in charcoal, showcased his ability to capture mood and subtle gesture. Inspired by mid-20th century American masters such as Ben Shahn, McGee began to develop formal devices that would help to shape his art during the rest of his career: groups of figures intertwined both physically and psychologically; a tendency toward flat patterns with little or no interest in three-dimensionality; the inclusion of words or letters with images; the negotiation of space and the picture plane in opposing ways on different parts of a single composition; the relationship between color, shape, and tempo. A scene that might be taken from life, such as Ring Around The Rosy (1965), would soon be further abstracted, its shapes flattened, and its composition complicated. This bold approach would become his recognizable idiom. A detour into abstract painting and conceptual and found-object sculpture in the early 1970s produced works that spoke to the aesthetics of the period, but were short-lived in his overall body of work.

By the early 1980s, McGee’s personal happiness and optimistic temperament found full expression in the sensual, musical Noah’s Ark series of paintings and collages, a theme that he continues to explore. Androgynous figures in flat black, with angular arms and legs, triangular profile heads, and dramatic gestures are intertwined with each other as well as with animals and abstract shapes. Patterns, particularly repeating ones such as dots or chevrons, fill many of the spaces, emphasizing the flatness of the shapes but also enlivening the composition with a rhythmic, almost vibrating, visual effect. A combination of painting, collaged fabric, and occasionally actual objects, these works express McGee’s joy of life, delight in nature, and belief in the interconnectedness of all things. His ongoing use of this imagery in variation suggests that it allows him both continuity and room for experimentation. In later works such as Rhapsody in Black and White (2008), he strips away color and ornament, strengthening line and increasing the density of the overlapping shapes; groups of such works are made of lightweight but rigid materials and push off the wall as low-relief sculpture. But he is just as likely to do an abrupt about-face and fabricate wall sculptures of the brilliant light and color of neon (see Noah’s Neon 1, 1995).

Working on a large scale has always appealed to McGee, both as a way to satisfy his outsized ideas and to reach the greatest number of viewers. His public works punctuate the city: The Blue Nile in the Broadway People Mover Station (1987), sculptures in various parts of the city, and two recent major works, United We Stand (2016), a 25-foot sculpture near the entrance to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, and Unity (2017), an 11-story mural on the side of the newly constructed 28Grand building downtown. Such works are the most insistent demonstration of McGee’s optimistic vision; his exuberant and vivacious visual language, developed over an extraordinary career, is a joyful paean to synthesis, multiplicity, and the intricate, syncopated rhythms of democracy.  

MaryAnn Wilkinson, December 2018

Copyright Essay’d 2018