One of the things I particularly like about gallery group shows and museum exhibitions is the unstated understanding that viewers will gravitate to specific works for their own reasons.

Even at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can find yourself having masterpieces like van Gogh’s “Starry Night” all to yourself. And the practice of looking very closely at individual paintings is the historical norm. (You can blame or thank Monet for the now-common series-based gallery show.) In this mode, painting is the opposite of standard photography – particularly the high-focus paintings that look the most like photographs: One is slow, intention-laden and meticulous while the other is instantaneous.

I was reminded of this when a painting by Alan Magee in a strong group show at Greenhut Galleries stopped me in my tracks.

“Natural History” features four pipe wrenches on a neutral cream ground in which they float upright like standing figures. They vary in size in such a way that the central wrench seems largest and closest. Hauntingly, the high-focus and supremely detailed objects to the sides of the central wrench fade away at their handles to become immaterial and shadowless, like ghosts.

As I walked away from the image, I wondered: Were they four images of the same wrench, and what was the role of the unfinished handles?

So, back I went.

I immediately looked to the ghostly parts. We can’t grasp them physically (ceci n’est pas une clé à pipe), but we can look closely. These sections become drawing as opposed to painting, and that tethers them to the beautifully textured slab of a panel on which the painting was made, which, ironically, makes the whole thing read far more clearly as a painting. While casual viewers could easily mistake many of Magee’s paintings for photographs, his extraordinary attention to detail respectfully welcomes the viewer to take a longer look.

When determining whether the image comprises one wrench repeated, we automatically shift into detective mode. This not only doubles down our attention to detail, but requires us to use conjectural knowledge, as trackers, detectives and diagnosing doctors would. Comparing minute details, we not only see four different wrenches but revel in Magee’s extraordinary sense of subtlety and nuance.

Tools are the ultimate in human intention. They are crafted to do very specific things. The pipe wrench, which has roots in 19th-century New England, has a clear purpose on one hand; yet it is so common that its sense is broadly generic. This echoes Magee’s painting: On one hand, it features four very specific wrenches, yet wrenches are such common objects that we each bring our own ideas, memories and associations to bear on this painting.

Magee’s sense of sustained attention is precisely why this painting feels so different from a photograph loaded with incidental information. To be included, details had to be noticed and then rendered by the painter (while a camera includes everything it is pointed at). We can easily admire his abilities, technique and brilliant choice of subject. Magee’s sustained attention, in turn, warrants ours.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. Contact at:

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