“I’m a hunter/gatherer of images,” says Phoenix artist Matt Magee, whose work is part of the Contemporary Forum exhibit at Phoenix Art Museum.
Magee won the 2017 artist award presented by Contemporary Forum, a support organization for the museum that focuses on contemporary art.
Each year’s winner shows work at the museum the following year, as do artists selected for Contemporary Forum artist grants.
For viewers, the exhibit provides a window into Magee’s world, in which collecting objects and images has been a steady habit for several decades.
“Scavenging is a natural, intuitive thing I do,” Magee says.
One installation, titled Prima Materia, comprises dozens of small-scale sculptures made with found objects amassed between 1981 and 2018. “It’s a time capsule of my development as an artist.”
Sometimes Magee stumbles on objects. Other times they’re given to him by friends or fellow artists.
“I have done this my whole life,” Magee says.
For Magee, life began in Paris during 1961. “My father was a career geologist, so we moved a lot,” he says. He spent part of the '60s living in Libya, and part living in London.
His family moved to Dallas during the early '70s, so that’s where Magee went to high school and college. In 1984, he moved to Brooklyn to attend the Pratt Institute.
Ten years later, he landed a job working for Robert Rauschenberg, an artist renowned for imbuing abstract works with real objects and images, and for challenging traditional boundaries between painting and sculpture.
“I started as an art handler, then became his chief photo archivist,” Magee says.
Sometimes Magee traveled to Europe, delivering the artist’s work. But most days, he worked 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. inside a warehouse just north of Manhattan. The job continued four years after Rauschenberg’s death in 2008.
“The Rauschenberg foundation gave me a very generous severance,” Magee says. “It was our ticket out of New York City.”
Magee moved to Phoenix with his partner in 2012, after years of visiting his brother and sister-in-law, who live here. “I wanted to be near family, and I love the desert landscape,” Magee says.
Coincidentally, studio space had just opened up at Cattle Track Arts Compound, the historic arts space just north of Old Town Scottsdale, where the artist lineup through the years has included Phillip Curtis, who helped launch the Phoenix Art Museum.
Magee has been making work at Cattle Track ever since.
“I’m in the studio seven days a week,” he says. “Part of that work ethic came from Robert Rauschenberg.” But there’s another reason. It’s the fact that he’s represented by seven different galleries, which need a steady stream of his artwork.
“The flow keeps flowing, and every day builds on the next,” Magee says. “Art is my job now, and I take it seriously.”
Magee says he's kept sketchbooks filled with thumbnail drawings since he started making art, plus slips of paper where he's written ideas so they won't slip away. He uses an iPhone, as well, to capture things that catch his interest. Sometimes, those images turn into paintings.
The Contemporary Forum exhibit at Phoenix Art Museum includes about two dozen of Magee’s works, including primarily paintings done on panels, as well as sculptures. “I’ve never painted on canvas,” he says.
Several of the sculptures were made with shapes cut from detergent bottles, which Magee connects using wire.
“All the work is about language at some level,” Magee says. “It’s an intuitive, made-up language that doesn’t have any specific meaning.”
It started with simple shapes while Magee was a young artist, but it’s grown over time. “It evolved out of finding my voice as an artist,” he says.
Sometimes that voice reflects the impact of other artists, such as Agnes Martin, a 20th-century Canadian-born abstract artist who worked in New York and New Mexico. “She’s been a huge touchstone for me,” Magee says.
In part, that’s because Martin spent years making art in the Southwest. “Being in this landscape, I understand the sparseness of her work.”
Moving from New York to Arizona had a significant impact on Magee’s art practice.
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“Coming from the Northeast where space is more compacted, I feel like my mind has opened up so I’m more aware of the sky, the mountains, the distant horizon,” he says. Magee says it’s brought sparser minimalism and geometry to his work.
Museum-goers got their first look on Wednesday, May 23, during the opening reception for the Contemporary Forum exhibit featuring all the 2017 winners. Magee gave a museum talk about his art practice at the museum that evening, then celebrated with friends and fellow artists.
Now he’s back in the studio, making more artwork. And he’s working with Santa Fe-based Radius Books on a monograph of his work due out in November. It covers his Arizona years from 2012 to 2018.
“My work has evolved in leaps and bounds since I moved out here,” Magee says. “I’m glad to be part of an arts scene that seems to be growing in leaps and bounds in a positive way.”