Authentic. Original. In today’s homogenized culture, authenticity and originality are rare. But those words describe perfectly the work of artist/writer James Magee – and the man himself.
Art scholar/critic Richard Brettell once referred to Magee, who has lived and worked in El Paso since 1981, as “America’s greatest living unknown artist.” Magee’s body of work includes sculptures, paintings, poetry, film and video, performance art, and a site, The Hill, which he has been building in the desert east of El Paso for more than 25 years. He has credited our border frontera with inspiring his art and that of his “doppelgangers” – Annabel Livermore and Horace Mayfield.
Now, Magee has given us “Letters to Goya: Poems, Titles and Letters to the Dead,” his new book from El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press. It is actually two “back-to-back” books in one, a single volume containing two distinct bodies of writing, each with its own separate cover. It is arguably the most unusual book published by Cinco Puntos since its founding by Lee and Bobby Byrd in 1985.
“Letters to Goya” – one “book” in this volume – is a collection of fictional letters written in the 1950s by The Duchess, a resident of the Waikiki Trailer Park in Sweetwater, Texas, to the 18th-century artist Francisco Goya.
The letters are lovingly researched, time capsules containing references to Mickey Mantle, polio, drive-in movies, a new luxury – the portable, window air conditioner – and other observations from a kinder, gentler time and place.
The Duchess’s letters reflect Magee’s delightful sense of humor and love of life. Her words about kindness and the art of living are a reflection of the writer’s heart. In one letter, The Duchess signs off with “Love, Forgiveness & Understanding,” while in another she says “...this world would be a better place if we just stopped yacking for a moment and kissed someone, I mean anyone...”
“Titles” – the other “book” in this volume – is further evidence of Magee’s unique artistic vision. Unlike the short, pithy, often meaningless titles typically used by artists, Magee’s titles are poems – “miniature dramas” – written as companion pieces for specific sculptures that he created over four decades. Interspersed with the “titles” are photographs of the sculptures that inspired the poems, often long after the sculptures were created.
The centerpiece in “Letters to Goya” is “Middleword,” written by Kerry Doyle, director of UTEP’s Rubin Center for the Visual Arts. It provides a bridge connecting the two disparate bodies of work. Both longtime admirers of Magee’s art and newcomers will enjoy and appreciate her observations, which illuminate Magee’s writing and paint a beautiful portrait of the artist as a man.
If you love art and literature, James Magee’s “Letters to Goya: Poems, Titles and Letters to the Dead” is a summer doubleheader you’ll enjoy.