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An artist paints his toolkit, and more

"Alphabet" is an apt title. Here are the rudiments - as letters are to a writer or notes to a musician - of a watercolorist's toolkit. American artist Alan Magee has painted other tools (wrenches, for example), similarly presenting them as icons placed flat on a plain background, but his paint box comes closer to intimate experience.

This transcends a photo-realistic shutter-click. Although Magee's realism breathtakingly deceives the eye, there's more: a sense of touch, of palpable surfaces. Magee's familiarity with the subtle differences of substance and texture in his subject is wonderfully conveyed. Often, this is what a photograph lacks. The camera lens intervenes, rendering the captured world into a mere image that is strangely distanced from reality.

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Sometimes in exhibitions of renowned artists, their painting materials are put in a glass case with other documentary evidence, as if these studio relics might give special insight into their art. They rarely do. But Magee's watercolor box is a live testimonial. The dried washes on its enameled surface are still fresh. They look like mini abstract paintings. The pans of caked watercolor, in their ordered progression, have been burrowed by the brush, their pigment mined for its purity.

Pure color, color at its most basic, is of great appeal to painters. Colors may be deliberately muddied for expressive purposes. Mixed colors may arrive at a point where the painter wants to start over with the clarity and order of basic colors - cobalt, crimson, or cadmium yellow. Some painters want to keep their colors pure; as Frank Stella once said, "I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can." Magee's immaculate style suggests he is an artist of this ilk. To him - although paradoxically this painting is an acrylic - a box of watercolors is an object of marvel.

'Alan Magee: paintings, sculpture, graphics' is at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, through Sept. 6.


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