Painting in the last 100 years has opened the perceptual doors so wide that it’s hard to look at image-making today without feeling modernism’s pervasive spell. Cubism, futurism, surrealism, abstraction — each brought us a new kind of “reality,” a way of seeing that the conventional and habitual made us ignore.
Veteran Detroit painter Allie McGhee keeps confronting this challenge of the new — an endless task that’s also endlessly regenerating — as his latest show at G.R. N’Namdi Gallery, “Nu Kind of Science,” demonstrates. Though he doesn’t use the word science gratuitously, McGhee’s works aren’t technological or coldly calculating; they’re a downright pleasure.
While inspired by macro- and microscopic photographs taken with the aid of the Hubble telescope or some impossibly potent electron microscope, McGhee doesn’t forget who he really is. Rather than fetishizing science, like some NASA groupie or biotech geek, he brings it into the fold, gives it a chair in the band — and the eye music that results is something like Stephen Hawking sitting in with the Sun Ra Arkestra.
Anyone who’s visited McGhee’s studio — where he improvises daily on the relationship between the momentary and the eternal — will have heard Dolphy, Coltrane, Mingus, Ornette et al. putting down a thick layer of tonal color and harmonic abstraction in the looming daylight. This is a different science, one that delves far into the past for keys to the future — informing McGhee’s art in ways that technology could never do.
So the paintings at N’Namdi, alternately referencing the astrophysical and jazz universes, point in multiple directions at once. A perfect illustration of this wide-open-mind gambit is the trio of mixed media (oil, acrylic and enamel) works that opens the show. Stir It Up (after Bob Marley and the Wailers) cues us into a swirling motif that appears in many of the 24 pieces here — but the overall effect is more like a modal track by Miles. Infinite Dimension, with its interplay of primal forces and solid blocks of color, makes astronomy a metaphor for a Mingus ballad, and vice versa. And though it’s tempting to see Havana (pictured) as a salsero’s nostalgic reverie, the storm clouds of red-orange that hover in its sky are a weather report from Saturn.
McGhee flirts with minimalism throughout the show, but it’s never more than a passing thought, because textural richness is what he’s really about. This trance-dance with surfaces joins with another of McGhee’s compulsions — that of finding something where less-than-nothing appears to be — in a series of recent wood constructions. By recycling color-stained dipsticks that he once used to stir paint for his canvases, McGhee has assembled painterly objects that boogie with introspection. The sticks literally carry the memory of past painting sessions. Yet by refusing to intervene with new paint on the finished works — to “correct” them with a dab here or there — McGhee has made himself work within a set of rules that resemble the chord changes of bop. From these parameters dictating the range of note-colors that can come into play, such pieces as the imposing Spirit Door and the anthropomorphic Shadow Dance have emerged.
The seesaw balance of the spiritual and the scientific, the lyrical and the epic, that underlies “Nu Kind of Science” is perhaps most apparent in two paintings — Nu Visions and Nu Kinnavision — that dominate one of the walls. In them, a contrast between draftsmanship and the operations of chance reminds us of our awed relationship with an ineffable, unnamable universe. The swirling, interlocking white drawings float in an elemental sea of sandy brown, light green, various blues and grays, suggesting a science in the service of a new mythology, a new poetics of space.
“Allie McGhee: Nu Kind of Science” is at G.R. N’Namdi Gallery (66 E. Forest, Detroit) through Nov. 23. McGhee speaks about his recent work at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 10; call 313-831-8700.George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]