Painting a Charles McGee mural


“Unity,” a mural by lauded artist Charles McGee, is painted on the exterior of the 28 Grand Building in Detroit’s Capitol Park.

At 92, Charles McGee is still creating art and still as thunderstruck as ever by the dazzling visual tapestry all around us.

“I look at our world in awe,” said the celebrated artist and teacher, speaking a week ago at his Rosedale Park home, “and how it’s all put together.” It is, he added, a fascination “that almost became a religion for me.”

That fascination and spirituality are on triumphant display in a retrospective at the Library Street Collective, which includes a number of pieces completed just this year.

If you can make only one art show this summer, “Charles McGee: Still Searching” would make an outstanding choice. The show is up through through July 1.

Hung in a spectacular, raw, pop-up space on Woodard filled with windows, “Still Searching” wends a path through McGee’s creative evolution, one that highlights the artist’s dizzying range and joyousness embedded in all his work.

Indeed, it’s a show that couldn’t be completely contained in Library Street’s temporary quarters at Woodward and Clifford. Walk around the corner to the top of Capitol Park and prepare to be bowled over by McGee’s 11-story black-and-white mural, “Unity,” completed in May.

“Still Searching” traces McGee’s creative arc from his early figurative work through the dazzling abstracts of mid-career, and then circles back to his starting point with hybrid canvases in which the artist integrates all the elements he’s explored up ’till now.

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Working with ancient Egyptian and African motifs, as well as the very stuff of life as seen through a microscope, McGee, the Kresge Foundation’s 2009 Eminent Artist, grapples with the primeval and the symbolic.

“I’ve always admired how well Charles combines his love of the figurative with abstract forms,” said Valerie Mercer, Detroit Institute of Arts curator of African-American art. “It makes his work very contemporary.”

“Still Searching” reaches back as far as 1965, when McGee was 40, with an affecting charcoal study “Mother and Child.”

That’s followed by a parade of the artist’s signature abstracts like the 2008 “Rhapsody in Black and White,” whose idiosyncratic, overlapping elements look a bit like bacteria or protozoans dressed up in party clothes.

“The forms,” said Mercer admiringly, “just seem to come alive and dance.”

The show concludes with one of McGee’s knock-out pieces, the 20-foot-wide, immensely colorful “Play Patterns II,” with its flattened, hieroglyph-people — floppy feet and all — juggling snakes as they parade across a background of what appears to be a sea of colorful microorganisms.

Those who know the DIA well will likely spot some resemblance to the museum’s huge McGee, “Noah’s Ark: Genesis.”

It goes without saying that there’s an identifiable signature to McGee’s work.

“I could recognize a Charles McGee anywhere and not confuse his with work by any other artist, ” said Mercer, who’s followed the artist ever since she landed in Detroit in 2001.

There’s no confusing the 118-foot-tall mural in Capitol Park, which echoes many of McGee’s smaller, protozoan assemblages.

Library Street owners Anthony and JJ Curis, who’ve energetically promoted public art over the years, arranged for McGee to get the commission.

“Bedrock’s new building was just coming on line,” Anthony said, referring to the downtown real-estate development company, “and they had this massive, blank facade on the north side.”

Bedrock, which collaborated with the Curises on any number of other public artworks downtown, including “The Belt” alleyway east of Woodward, was interested, so the couple approached McGee.

“I wasn’t sure how Charles would react,” Anthony said, “but his eyes just lit up. I think he realized what an opportunity it was.”

The result is a soaring, can’t-miss piece of art in downtown’s most-urbane new neighborhood, one that acts as a fitting exclamation point to “Still Searching.”

And the artist himself? Is he satisfied?

McGee laughed. “I’m never totally satisfied; I always say things can be better.” ”

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

‘Charles McGee: Still Searching’

Library Street Collective (pop-up gallery), 1505 Woodward, Detroit

Noon-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays

(313) 600-7443

‘Unity’ mural

28 Grand (north side), 28 Grand River, Detroit

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