Douglas MacWithey, “Selections from the Seals of the Philosophers,” at The MAC (2011)

Most of us have forgotten the hidden power of words, the energy of simple shapes, and the alchemy that occurs when the two are rightly conjoined.

We often neglect such poetic power and energy, or we employ it profanely as advertising or propaganda. Yet, Douglas MacWithey, in the Square Gallery of The McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC), gently reminds us of this neglect and sacrilege with a final offering of language and image entitled, “Selections from the Seals of the Philosophers.” This exhibition, curated by Charles Dee Mitchell, shows the union of a minimalist aesthetic and a mind on fire.

The personal notebooks on display in the center of the space reveal how words can contain peculiar resonances for us. And while MacWithey’s notes are handwritten in a careful, uniform script, the language presented appears intuitive, witty, playful, and yet somehow deeply intended. Circles and lines and excerptions most directly indicate his auxiliary self-involvement with his notebooks. It is as if he went at them again and again searching. They show how he worked the words and, conversely, how they worked upon him.

The work on the walls admits a fascination with the simplicity of circular forms, ones usually nominally (qua essentially) painted. Some are accompanied with more gestural shapes that, like the use of color, serve to compliment the minimalism with a delicate sense of life. Excerpts and fragments from what seem to be books of wisdom – or perhaps archaic alchemical texts – are affixed to these works. The effect is one of conversion or transubstantiation, in which the simple circular forms become oblique references to alchemical seals and secret keys.

Though the passages and phrases seem mainly arbitrary and, necessarily, incomplete, they nevertheless move us towards contemplation of divinity, wisdom, and meaning. Just as we, being uninitiated, might perplexedly stare at the symbolically rich geometric sigils of obscure hermetic texts, so we might find ourselves here lost amongst the sublime textual infusions, searching for connections and meaning. We may even find that our aesthetic registers become more explicit interpretive registers, ones echoing the activity apparent in MacWithey’s notes. And when this occurs the often-concealed conjunction of image and word reveals the shared origin of art and magic.

Selections from the artist’s notebooks were read on September 21 at The MAC, followed by a reception at The Reading Room.

Douglas MacWithey passed away last September at the age of 58.

—Andy Amato, PhD

Andy Amato is a Dallas-based artist, writer and teacher

(This originally appeared in Arts+Culture Magazine)

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