Charles McGee, Rhapsody in Black and White, 2008, ink jet on Dibond, 60 x 118 x 4".

Charles McGee, Rhapsody in Black and White, 2008, ink jet on Dibond, 60 x 118 x 4".

Charles McGee

Charles McGee, Rhapsody in Black and White, 2008, ink jet on Dibond, 60 x 118 x 4".

Over the past few years, Detroit icon Charles McGee has become one of the public faces of a resurgent Motor City. McGee, now ninety-two, has been painting large-scale, black-and-white murals and installing sculptures throughout his hometown since the 1970s, but these works have recently begun to appear more frequently and prominently. McGee’s biomorphic polka-dotted and striped sculpture of a group of dancing figures, United We Stand, 2016, greets visitors at the entrance of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. His similarly vibrant eleven-story mural, Unity, 2017, a dynamic composition of schematic human, animal, insect, and reptile forms, appears on the side of 28 Grand, a brand-new mixed-income apartment building that recently opened in the city’s Capitol Park neighborhood. Playing between abstraction and realism, McGee’s public works evoke a sundry range of visual traditions, including those of European modernism and African and American Indian art.

Scheduled to coincide with the completion of the 28 Grand mural, “Still Searching” was a quasi retrospective: The exhibition showcased thirty of McGee’s paintings, photographs, sculptures, collages, and drawings spanning the early 1960s to the present, but largely focused on the artist’s past three decades of work. These works revealed McGee’s deftness at combining divergent styles, techniques, and media into harmonious wholes, forwarding an optimistic model for a heterogeneous and community-oriented Detroit—one he has long vouched for in his public life as an active participant in the local arts scene.

Mother and Child, 1965, confronts viewers with McGee’s own powerful brand of social realism, characteristic of his earlier years. A monumental charcoal drawing of an embracing—almost merging—mother and daughter, it is typical of the artist’s depiction of black figures in ways that suggest love, equality, and endurance. The mother’s patterned shirt and daughter’s dress blend into the patchwork of abstract shapes behind them, rendering the spatial relationship between figures and ground ambiguous. Oscillating between coherence and dissolution, the image implies that even engaged description must be leavened with poetic transformation.

The artist’s technical mastery was further demonstrated by neo-Expressionist mixed-media paintings from the 1980s—eclectic surfaces that deploy collage to sample from a range of cultures and pictorial vernaculars. During the 1970s (a decade that is unfortunately not represented in the show), McGee took up pure abstraction in his large-scale geometric paintings and murals. When he later returned to the black figure, she became more abstract, cartoonish, and linear in comparison with the artist’s earlier figurative works. Like Kerry James Marshall, McGee is adept at wringing character and strength out of pitch-black faces and forms: Gail, 1982, presents a compelling image of black power, a grinning woman coiffed with McGee’s own shorn dreadlocks and dressed in African textiles. Behind her, shapes resembling American Indian pictographs mix with more African cloth, polka dots, and capital letters. An active surface formed from an array of painted and scavenged materials, Gail mixes African and American cultural signifiers to create a forceful assertion of black identity in dialogue with other ethnicities and affiliations.

The third and final section of the show concentrated on drawings, sculptures, and murals from the past decade. Here McGee once again channels multicultural influences, commingling black-and-white human, animal, and graphic forms. Also featured in this portion of the show were McGee’s large-scale steel and Dibond reliefs and sculptures and their preparatory “drawings”—collages McGee assembled by superimposing shallow rhizomatic layers of ink on paper—all of which share iconography with the artist’s public murals. One Dibond sculpture, Rhapsody in Black and White, 2008—a jumble of serpentine silhouettes decorated with a textural medley of inky hatch marks, polka dots, and sinuous lines—seemed to materialize a line penned by Detroit-based poet Bill Harris: “an ever intriguing interplay / of form, rhythm, & harmony.” The rhythmic propulsion and organismic quality of this work, coupled with the industrial means with which it was printed—an ultraviolet ink-jet spray “system”—can be interpreted as an allegory for the construction of a new kind of metropolis in which diverse humans can live in harmony with both nature and one another. The (always) creative engagement with industrial technologies that supported Detroit in the past, McGee’s metal sculptures suggest, remains key to its future, as well.

Matthew Biro