McGee, Charles 1924—
Charles McGee 1924—
A well-known figure on the art scene in Detroit, Charles McGee has created a vast catalogue of works that have evolved over the years from charcoal drawings and photography to avant-garde three-dimensional pieces incorporating various media. His works have both chronicled the black experience and celebrated his lifelong love of nature. In a 1994 Detroit Metro Times review of a McGee exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Glen Mannisto referred to the “amazing expanse and strata of experience that McGee had behind him both as a human being and as an artist in his 70 years.”
McGee believes that his art draws on all aspects of his being and that he must keep all parts of himself open to let the creativity flow. “I trust myself to touch the paper and touch the canvas, to touch any part of the art and let my physical and mental nature take over and make the shape, because I know it’s going to be honest,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “I know it’s going to be me.”
Sometimes referred to as having become Afrocentric before most other black artists, McGee has often incorporated elements of the black experience into his art. Younger black artists have cited him as helping to pave the way for acceptance of their work. As Detroit artist Roy Castleberry was quoted in ARTnews, “His [McGee’s] aesthetics always clashed with ours, his brilliant palette of colors, but everyone had deep respect for the man and the artist. He really was from an older generation and had helped shape a lot of the younger cats.”
Many critics consider McGee’s masterwork to be his series called Noah ’s Ark. Mannisto referred to this series as a “staggering exhibition that reads as a crescendo to his [McGee’s] life as an artist.” McGee spent ten years creating the series, which features heavy influences of the artist’s interest in nature as well as his fascination with light. “The whole series of ’Noah(’s) Ark’ then,” said Mannisto, “could be said to be about light and its deconstruction into color—about its prominence in articulating the world through color, pattern, and especially the play of shadow and form.”
McGee developed a strong interest in nature during his early youth on a farm in South Carolina, which would later come out in his artwork. He was fascinated with all types of animals and insects, and his communion with the
Born December 15, 1924, in Clemson, SC. Education: Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (now the Center for Creative Studies), 1947–57; Escuela Massana, 1968; Barcelona School of Graphics, 1968.
Worked as factory laborer, Detroit, Ml, 1950s; was cartographer for the government; emerged as artist, late 1950s; began creating highly acclaimed charcoal drawings of black urban life, late 1950s; shifted creative efforts to minimalist sculptures with mixed media and other avant-garde works, 1970s; began his Noah’s Ark series, 1980s.
Exhibitions: Brooklyn Museum, 1969; Columbia University, 1969; La Jolla Museum of Art, La Jolla, CA, 1970; Whitney Museum, New York, NY, 1971; State Armory, Wilmington, DE, 1971; University of Iowa, 1971–1972; Detroit Focus Gallery, 1989; Detroit Institute of Arts; Biannual Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Show; Butler Institute of American Art; Five Main Galleries of Detroit Show; Flint Museum, Flint, Ml; Atlanta University; Howard University (one-man show); Wayne State University; Detroit Artists Market; Philadelphia Civil Center Museum; University of California; Nordness Galleries, New York, NY.
Awards: First Prize, Atlanta University art show; First Prize, Annual Michigan State Fair Exhibit.
Addresses: Office—c/o Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, Ml 48202.
natural world was perhaps more intense since he did not begin going to school until he was ten years old. Sandra Yolles wrote in ARTnews, “It was like nature really had been his [McGee’s] classroom and those were his ABCs.”
After his family moved to Detroit in the 1930s, McGee began revealing his talents as an artist while attending grade school. As a young adult, he became a factory worker and gained a familiarity with machinery that served him well in later years when he began making sculptures that required metal pieces and welding. Further broadening his artistic perspective was the experience he gained as a mapmaker for the government. The various grids, symbols, and linear structures he worked with as a cartographer became key components of his later artistic creations.
McGee received education in art for a decade during the 1940s and 1950s at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Michigan, which is now called the Center for Creative Studies. “The formal education made him a fine craftsman, able to compose, draw and paint with the ease of someone with a master’s degree,” wrote Marsha Miro in the Detroit Free Press. This education, combined with the child’s eye that remained fresh in McGee, steered him toward the work that would make his mark in the art world.
Critical recognition of McGee as an artist came in the late 1950s. He won his first award for a painting in 1958 at the Annual Michigan Artists Exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Especially noteworthy of his pieces at this time were charcoal drawings of black urban life. Claiming that these pieces were not motivated by social conscience, McGee said that he drew these subjects simply because he was familiar with them. According to Miro, McGee attracted attention because he “caught moments and gestures that were poetic.” McGee continued his artistic focus on different aspects of the black experience from this point on. He also became a master at manipulating light in his paintings. Frequently, he tapped into elements of both nature and technology to achieve dramatic effects, juxtaposing these elements to create stark contrasts.
In the 1970s McGee made a shift into more avant-garde work, incorporating geometric abstractions and devising minimalist sculptures. He began experimenting more with color, using color itself to make a statement through changing tones. His light-based sensitivity was greatly influenced by a 1986 trip he took to Mexico, where the Detroit Institute of Arts had organized a Diego Rivera retrospective. While there he strolled the towns and their central districts, finding that “the light was very individual and informative,” according to Mannisto.
McGee’s manipulation of color and geometric shapes is evocatively displayed in Noah’s Ark, a series of mixed-media creations begun by the artist in 1980. Begun as mural-size paintings and later turned into sculptures utilizing cutouts of foam-core board and cut aluminum, these works are complex yet primal. They demonstrate both playfulness and sexuality in their juxtaposition of various shapes. Numerous African images are incorporated into them, and the pieces reveal a balance of elements that in many ways symbolizes the balance of nature itself. The series also reveals a childlike hope that the creatures of the world can coexist in harmony. Leading off the series was Noah’s Ark: Genesis, which the artist created in 1984. This massive piece consists of four five-by-ten foot panels that feature Egyptian-styled black female figures wrapped by a coiling snake. The figures are on a surface with a variety of animal figures, depicting Noah’s ark as a haven during the great flood.
A wide range of elements was considered fair game by McGee to include in Noah’s Ark. He collaged some of his own hair onto Genesis. Jubilee, a sexually charged piece displaying a blue-eyed face with a provocative red mouth, incorporated seed pods and a fragment of a musical score. The artist blended dirt with plaster to create a specific color quality he wanted in one of the Patches of Time paintings in the series. To these paintings he also added grass that he picked up while playing golf, one of his favorite diversions.
Critical acclaim has been high for Noah’s Ark. “Utilizing boldly colored contrasting patterns, McGee juggles geometry with the rhythm of a spiritual dance and with a sense of humor,” said Yolles in her ARTnews review of an exhibition of the series at the Detroit Focus Gallery in 1989. She was particularly impressed by McGee’s “idea drawings” for his Noah’s Ark sculptures and other works, more than 100 of which were included in the exhibition. “They [the drawings] evince a sexual energy, a crude pleasure in line, and a reveling in complex pattern,” she said.
Mannisto wrote in his review of an exhibition of Noah’s Ark at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1994 that it shows “an extraordinary sensuousness that is suspended in a harmonic balance that speaks of classical form.” In the Detroit Institute of Arts catalog for a 1995 exhibit discussed in the Detroit Free Press, co-curator Jacqueline Shinners wrote, “McGee uses the placement of color in the ’Noah’s Ark’ series to change perceptions of background and foreground causing shapes to seem to jump forward or recede into the distance.”
By the late 1980s McGee’s work revealed his increasing interest in abstracting from figures. This interest is vividly evident in Dancer, an aluminum and steel sculpture displayed in the Detroit Focus Gallery whose pattern is based on a woman’s bent knee. His Urban Extract II in this exhibition also revealed that McGee’s interest in the urban experience was still thriving. This structure of plaster with the lath showing through “was literally a text—it looked like sentences or sheet music—signifying the failure of the urban grid to accommodate the dynamics of a failing social order,” according to Mannisto.
Some of McGee’s exhibits have included his photographs. Although he thinks of these only as tools for understanding how light, color, and shapes occur in nature and architecture, some critics have praised them for their value in understanding the artistic process. Mannisto said that some of the photographs “reveal a keen eye in deciphering shapes and patterns that are isolated and read like his [McGee’s] urban extracts as a found iconography of place.” With his child’s eye remaining a constant as he developed his talent throughout his career, McGee has carved a niche in the art world for pieces that manage to depict, combine, and abstract both timeless nature and modern human experience.
Despondency (oil on board), 1960.
African Market (oil on masonite), 1966.
Squares and Things (oil), 1967.
Untitled No. 1 (charcoal on paper), 1969.
Hope (serigraph), 1973.
Noah ’s Ark: Genesis (oil and mixed media on masonite), 1984.
Happytimeframes (mixed media), 1988.
Noah’s Ark: Syncopation (metal relief), 1993.
Afro-American Artists, compiled and edited by Theresa Dickason Cederholm, Boston Public Library, 1973, p. 188.
ARTnews, September 1989, pp. 186, 188.
Detroit Free Press, January 1, 1995, pp. 1G, 4G.
Detroit Metro Times, December 14,1994, pp. 40–42.
Detroit News Magazine, November 16, 1969, pp. 22–26.
Negro History Bulletin, October 1967, p. 8.
New York Times, October 8, 1969, p. 38.
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