James Magee and The Hill
For more than a quarter of a century, the American artist, James Magee, has been engaged in a massive, largely secret, almost solitary endeavor in the vast plains of West Texas. A Michigan-born, Ivy League-educated lawyer, Magee’s unusual trajectory through New York taxi driver and off-shore roughneck led him to make his home in El Paso, Texas, a border city made up of equal parts Mexico and the U.S., where, ﬁttingly, he produces a vast body of work both under his own name and under the names of Annabel Livermore and Horace Mayﬁeld, liminal identities in a liminal place. A painter, sculptor, poet, ﬁlm and video maker, widely featured in museum and gallery exhibitions across the U.S. from the Yale University Art Gallery to the Santa Monica Art Museum, Magee here reveals himself to be an architect, engineer and builder as well.
Somewhere on the road ahead, Jim Magee is chatting through a translator with China’s Minister of Culture. Like me and the group of people I’ve been travelling with, the Minister wants to see Jim’s Hill.
No one who’s seen The Hill has been able to describe it to me without visceral discomfort. Actually, no one’s been able to describe it at all.
‘It’s, ah, well, um…Jim’s like an onion,’ were the words that came out of my friend Alan’s mouth when he picked me up at the El Paso airport last night. I wanted to hear about The Hill, but Alan could only touch on the layers of its creator. ‘You’ll see for yourself,’ he finally said.
Fair enough. So far I have only basic facts in a notebook: James R. Magee, a sixty-two-year-old Michigan transplant by way of New York, city and state, has since 1982 acquired 2000 acres in the desert outside of El Paso. On it he has created…what? I don’t know. Something that reduces articulate art historians to murmuring wonder. Something large and multifaceted and of the land, but not Land Art, in the sense of a particular environment manipulated to human design. A work capable of making adults weep and begetting terror in its viewers, even nightmares. From the awkward descriptions I’ve heard, The Hill seems insistent on resurrecting the word ‘awe’, allowing it to once again summon ‘solemn wonder tinged with latent fear’.