Matt Magee: Circa 1994 at Hiram Butler Gallery

by Paul Laster

Matt Magee: Circa 1994, installation view. Courtesy Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston

Starting his artistic career as a sculptor, Matt Magee made the switch to painting in 1994—a seminal year for him. In April of ’94, he turned 33 and, soon thereafter, lost his art handler job at L.A. Louver’s New York branch, when it closed because of the recession. He quickly landed a new position at Nancy Hoffman Gallery during the summer; met his present-day partner in October; and then jumped to the job of a lifetime in November at Robert Rauschenberg’s studio, where he worked (while continuing to paint and exhibit) for the next 18 years. Something was in the air that year—at least for Magee.

Circa 1994 explores the artist’s first serious shot at painting. A select survey, it offers 25 small-scale, experimental paintings executed between 1994 and 1999—with the majority coming from the earliest year—hung salon-style on a single 24-foot wall of the gallery. Symbols and pictograms painted on scraps of found wood, Magee’s pieces are pared-down abstractions, chiefly rendered in two colors to smartly convey contrasting figure/ground relationships. Inspired by such American abstractionists as Forrest Bess, Paul Feeley, and Myron Stout, this selection displays the development of Magee’s quirky visual vocabulary, which adds to the reductionist language of these Modernists masters.

Matt Magee: Circa 1994, installation view (detail). Courtesy Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston

MCMXCIV (1994) commemorates the year of transformation in Roman numerals, while Seven Down (1994), resembling ovular black rocks growing larger as they descend on a white field, and Seven Points (1994), a seven-peaked white star on a red ground, represent potential symbols of luck that Magee made as talismans to propel him to better times, which appears to have worked.

Greypath and Whitepath (both 1994) eloquently trace long and winding visual roads through abstract realms—beware of snakes, which these endless paths evoke—while clusters of crescent moons are featured in imaginatively different ways in the undulating forms of Alpha II (1995) and the row-by-row charted System Sign II (1995).

Matt Magee: Circa 1994, installation view (detail). Courtesy Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston

Inspired by Oyvind Fahlstrom’s Ade-Ledic-Nander 1, a painting of a rocket-like form filled with abstract symbols that Magee admired from Rauschenberg’s collection, Djinn (1995) portrays the silhouette of a pagoda temple bursting with shapes representing various stages the moon. The temple structure gets carried into Dreaming of Burma (1995), which references skylines filled with thousands of historical Buddhist shrines in present-day Myanmar.

The Space Within Between (1996) depicts five pairs of abstract birds, head to head, with perfectly rendered negative space around them. It’s uncanny that Magee’s hand could produce duplicate forms in the same precise way that silkscreen is more often utilized to do. Vertical Violet (1997), an optically vibrating work, presents a sequence of squiggly lines to allude to a car air filter that the artist found in the street, and Rorschach (1998), a spine-like column of whimsical forms, are also painted to a symmetrical perfection that’s reminiscent of Robert Indiana’s earliest Pop Art paintings.

Matt Magee: Circa 1994, installation view (detail). Courtesy Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston

Capping off the decade, Memory Chart and Blacknet (both 1999) are pictograms inspired by a trip the artist made with his geologist father to an archeological site—a cave—on the border between Texas and Mexico that is decorated with ancient Indian symbols. In the case of these two works, however, the symbols come from Magee’s imagination, where all of his works reside before being poetically filtered from mind to brush to surface.

Matt Magee: Circa 1994 is on view at Hiram Butler Gallery in Houston through January 4, 2014.


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2 Responses to Matt Magee: Circa 1994 at Hiram Butler Gallery

  1. HIGGINS says:

    My Partner surprised me with a sculpture made by Matt several years ago. I long admired it in a Gallery near our country home. When I returned from a trip I found the sculpture on a table in the main house and it took my breath away seeing it in our home. I Googled Matt and found an email and this began our friendship lo’ those years ago. He and his Partner share a wonderful quality of seeing the world uniquely. This is truly evident in Matt’s paintings and sculptures. Everyone lucky enough to see Matt’s work at the Butler Gallery is in for an experience they will never forget. As I approach my 50th Birthday this March I’m hoping that if I drop some hints to my Husband I’ll have a Matt Magee painting to cherish forever (Matt, you know which one I love!) Happy New Year! A toast to a great Artist!!! Bravo!

  2. Fidel Micó says:

    Certainly, Matt Magee had a very interesting career, and you have introduced it in your article keeping respect and critical writing. Although I do not share his taste on painting, I feel that this art is actually good, educative, and civilizing, because it represents a highly defined intention for communicating relevant messages with an innovative code. I have found some similarity between the paintings sample that you have selected with the language of Wifredo Lam for representing an important component of our culture.

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