Harper’s is thrilled to announce Parallax, Detroit-based artist Allie McGhee’s inaugural exhibition with the gallery. Featuring a selection of new and historic paintings at Harper’s Chelsea 512, Parallax marks his first major solo presentation in New York City. Although McGhee has been a significant contributor to the school of postwar Black abstractionists for decades, it is only recently that his accomplishments are being given the recognition they deserve. Parallax comes on the heels of his 2021 retrospective at Cranbrook Art Museum and includes several of his most ambitious paintings from the last forty years. The exhibition opens on Thursday, September 8, 6–8pm, with a reception attended by the artist.
Born in the South and raised in Detroit, McGhee’s experiences as a young artist during the civil rights era profoundly shaped his approach to painting. Encountering the social unrest caused by desegregation, economic uncertainty, and the Vietnam War, McGhee and his African American peers engaged in creative enterprises that sought to discover how Black artists could—and should—contribute to the story of Western culture. In the 1960s, McGhee made politically charged paintings alongside radical figures such as Harold Neal and collaborated with Charles McGee to establish Gallery 7, an all-Black exhibition space and educational center in Detroit. The former endeavor, coming directly out of the Black Arts Movement, cultivated the agitational dimensions of art; the latter, taking inspiration from the origins of European and American modernism, explored the formal attributes of stylistic conventions. Although McGhee acted as an important bridge between these two tendencies, he ultimately pivoted to abstraction as his primary mode of expression.
While McGhee was going through this transition, he found that channeling political anger through works of art foreclosed certain aesthetic possibilities. Such commitments can be “blinding,” as the artist once decisively put it. Since the 1970s, he has sought to push his practice to a higher, universal plane: to visualize what he calls “the all.” Though still influenced by themes related to the Black diaspora, McGhee’s focus on abstraction opens his work to a variety of interpretations. He imaginatively pairs motifs like African tribal masks, the Ubangi figure, free jazz, and his own personal symbol, the Banana Moon Horn, with evocative depictions of the everlasting: marks resembling prehistoric cave paintings and imagery that recalls the vast celestial sky. In this unique combination of idioms, McGhee embraces modernist techniques pioneered by the Cubists and Abstract Expressionists, which bring out the fullest potential of paint as material—its viscous, tactile, and malleable qualities. The results of McGhee’s formal investigations are generative and inexhaustible. Like the dream of intergalactic exploration implicit in our stargazing and cave-drawing, the selection of work on view in Parallax invites its audience to reflect on open-ended, potentially unanswerable questions.
The exhibition presents two distinct bodies of work that have preoccupied McGhee since his turn to non-representational painting. The first and largest series, the Poured Paintings, features a mixture of acrylic and oil-based enamel pigments traversing rectangular surfaces. Works such as Micro Dream (2020–21) and Apartheid (1984) are noteworthy examples of this approach. Bending over and coating the canvases or panels directly on the floor, the artist uses the force of gravity to produce animated compositions that oscillate between biomorphic and geometric forms. In some quadrants, he allows the immiscible paints to pool and sunder; in others, his hand clearly shapes the arrangements. The tension between these two modalities activates every inch of visual space of his paintings, from the smallest details to the total picture. Often using paint sticks, trowels, and other tools in lieu of a brush, McGhee embraces improvisation and spontaneity in sweeping gestures that combine quick movements and measured deliberations. In some instances, he embeds paint sticks in the surface of the artwork, leaving behind a record of the creative process. The title of the exhibition, Parallax, is inspired by the transformative phases that McGhee’s work undergoes in the studio, where his configurations are in a constant state of flux until their final moments. A similar phenomenon is accessible to viewers, as his work can appear to be entirely different paintings depending on their vantage point and proximity.
McGhee’s second series, the Crushed Paintings, comprises deconstructed arrangements on vinyl, paper, and other materials that directly hang on the wall, typically lacking a frame or support. The artist follows the same procedure as the Poured Paintings but adds an extra step of coating both sides of the sheets in pigment. He then folds, creases, and buckles the substrates so they collapse into themselves, becoming three-dimensional forms. In some cases, the Crushed Paintings are molded in a loose geometric fashion, as in Blues Wrap (2019); in others, they are amorphous and spherical, resembling enlarged paper balls, as in Blue Mask (2009). When McGhee began this series, the technique was motivated by a childhood memory of his mother proudly displaying his “failed” drawings after she salvaged them from the waste basket. Despite the personal connection, the Crushed Paintings are crafted with rigor and consciously respond to work created by his Black contemporaries. Artists such as Sam Gilliam and Ed Clark—the latter being one of McGhee’s closest friends—also challenged the formal conventions of the standard rectangular shape of the canvas, either by abandoning it altogether, as with Gilliam’s Draped paintings, or by modifying the edges of the picture plane, as seen in Clark’s oeuvre. Even as sculptural objects, McGhee’s crushed works are chiefly in dialogue with the genre of painting, as he directly addresses—and expands—its definition as a discipline that supposedly operates in flat, pictorial space.
When brought together, the selection of paintings in Parallax offer a concise presentation of McGhee’s output over the last forty years. Albeit overdue, recognition is finally catching up with McGhee and his dynamic practice.
Allie McGhee (b. 1941, Charleston, WV) received an undergraduate degree from Eastern Michigan University in 1965. In the last decade alone, McGhee’s work was chronicled by major group exhibitions including Harold Neal and Detroit African American Artists, 1945 Through the Black Arts Movement, Wayne State University, Detroit, and Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI (2021); Enunciated Life, California African American Museum, Los Angeles (2021); Landlord Colors, Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, MI (2019); Art of the Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit (2017); and Ménage a Detroit: Three Generations of Detroit Expressionist Art, 1970-2012, N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, Detroit (2012). Most recently, his work has been the subject of solo presentations: Allie McGhee: Banana Moon Horn, Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills (2021); Allie McGhee: The Ritual of the Mask, Belle Isle Viewing Room, Detroit (2021); Allie McGhee, Hill Gallery, Birmingham, MI (2019); and Cosmic Images 2000, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (2018). His work can be found in numerous public collections including Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit; Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, MI; St. Louis Museum of Art, St. Louis; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and Toyota City Hall, Toyota, JP. McGhee is represented by Harper’s.