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A pillar of Detroit's art scene, painter Allie McGhee keeps bending the rules

Allie McGhee explains the history of how he named his recent series of works Banana Moon Horn.
Hernz Laguerre Jr., The Detroit News

Renowned Detroit abstract artist Allie McGhee was painting a large mural at a local high school years ago when a student pointed out what he thought was obvious: the horn, or half crescent shape, that McGhee incorporates into so much of his work, inspired by African art, doesn't look like a horn at all. It looks like a banana, the student declared.

McGhee was OK with that. When you draw inspiration from the entire cosmos dating back to cave drawings, you're open to different interpretations of your work.

"That's OK, man," said McGhee. "The study and research that I did about the psychology of symbols and shapes — something that was established during cave drawings that we use right up until today, the half-crescent moon, circles, squares—these things are an inroad to all of us. It's part of our DNA. I was trying to explain all of that to him and he said, 'No, (it's) a banana.'" 

Banana or not, it's a recurring symbol in McGhee's work, now on display as part of a retrospective show, fittingly called Banana Moon Horn, at the Cranbrook Art Museum. The show, McGhee's first major retrospective, runs through March 20, 2022. McGhee will give a talk with Laura Mott, Cranbrook's senior curator of contemporary art and design, at 6 p.m. Nov. 11.

"He is interested in cave paintings and early forms of communication, so the different interpretations that can be brought to the same shape is very much of interest to him," said Mott.

McGhee, 80, has been a pillar in Detroit's art scene for more than six decades, but has a presence far beyond the city's limits, displaying his work from New York to Los Angeles. His paintings are in museums such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.

Some of McGhee's most unique pieces, which he's been doing since 2000, are his crushed paintings which almost look like 3D sculptures. He paints both sides of a piece of paper or vinyl — he doesn't paint with brushes but instead uses paint sticks, bending over his canvases on the floor to create — and then crushes it into a specific shape. 

"It's like when you have music and you have side 1 and side 2 and people say, 'Oh, that's the jam!' But you should hear side 2," said McGee. "...Each one of these has another life on the backside."

McGhee said he started doing the crushed paintings because he wanted to push his work from two-dimensional to three.

"You always have the illusion of the third dimension with still life or figurative paintings but you never had the third dimension. I thought why can't I have a third dimension and a two-dimensional surface because it gets the person to look at my paintings differently," said McGhee. 

Born in West Virginia, McGhee was drawn to art even as a child, drawing pictures on the walls in his house. Relatives told his mom she was letting McGhee destroy the house but she told them to leave him alone.

"She had artistic skills of her own but she never pursued it as a fine artist, so she didn't want to deter me," said McGhee.

When he was 10, his parents moved to Detroit. He graduated from Detroit's Cass Tech and later went to both Ferris and later Eastern Michigan University, where he studied art. He was encouraged to become a teacher, but that isn't what he wanted to do.

"People try to push you into commercial art at Ferris and then Eastern is a teaching college because they figure you're going to fail," said McGhee.

But he's done anything but. The new Cranbrook exhibition—the name comes from a series of his paintings called Banana Moon Horn—takes viewers on a journey through the decades, exploring his work over the decades. It includes one of the largest paintings he's ever done. 

Much of McGhee's work explores different ideas and concepts from science and history. After reading that man can only make 26 kinds of scribes dating back all the way from the time of cave drawings to today, he decided to test that out with a painting. He found only two kinds of scribes, a circle, and a straight line.

"I wanted to work that out so I could see it myself," said McGhee.

Ultimately, it's about connecting with the universe and continuing to push his work. And also breaking rules—he sometimes mixes enamel and acrylic or acrylic and oil with his paintings.

"In college, they'll tell you 'You can't ever do that' and I think, 'I can't wait to break that one.' You get the most wonderful results," he said—Maureen Feighan

Allie McGhee takes us on a journey of his process and how he hopes his paintings relate to people.
Hernz Laguerre Jr., The Detroit News



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