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Saturday, February 23

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The Crown Center Gallery, located in Loyola University's Crown Center for Humanities, 1001 W. Loyola Ave., 2nd floor, will feature Michael Paxton in a one-person show, Jan. 19 - Feb. 23, 2007. A native of Huntington, West Virginia, Paxton now lives on Chicago's southwest side. His work has been featured in many one-person and invitational group exhibitions across the country, and his awards include grants from the Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, among others. Long recognized for his drawings and paintings of the working class and industrial landscapes, his new exhibition, entitled "The Hidden," is about the hidden areas of Chicago's south and southwest industrial corridor, and reflects Paxton's interest in the sometimes forgotten. "The Hidden" will feature sketches and finished pieces on canvas to demonstrate the artist's working process.

A winner in the Open Studios 2006 Midwestern Competition, Paxton's work was chosen to appear in New American Paintings, Volume 65, published by Open Studios Press, Boston, in the summer of 2006. Paxton, who is currently an adjunct instructor of fine art in the Art & Design Department at Columbia College, will be present to speak about his work during the artist's reception Fri. Jan. 19 from 4-8pm. You can visit Paxton's website at michael-paxton.com.

Q: You've been a practicing artist in Chi-town for some time now. All art scenes ebb and tide, and with these ebbs and tides critics and audiences arise and wane. I'm sure you've noticed shifts in the critical evaluation of art in our city during your time here. Where do you think coverage/reviews of art shows stands today?

Paxton: I am a little reticent to throw too many stones at the critic's house because as an artist my house has plenty of glass in it too, but your question is a fair one and deserves an honest answer. I think most artists will agree, and here I am speaking of quantity and not quality, that the amount of ink and the prominent placement of that ink is weak. I must also say that I have had my fair share of reviews and features so I can't complain too much.

As a historical reference, when I had my first one-person show in Chicago in 1981 you couldn't pick up a national art magazine without seeing multiple reviews and features on Chicago artists and their shows. One big reason I came to Chicago in the first place was because of this. Also, at that time the New Art Examiner was a very strong and vibrant force for the local art scene and was well-respected nationally. In those days art shown in artist-run galleries was concentrated roughly on Hubbard Street between State and Clark and on Friday nights all came out in support.

Now some 25 years later, the rules for engagement have changed. With the advent of the Internet, along with online art magazines, blogs, websites, etc., the way information is assimilated is much different. The concentration of the Chicago art scene is more spread out and the focus on mid-career artists involved with a life's work is not as fashionable as young MFAs hell-bent on careerism. This said, a local rock band or a small storefront theater having its first show stands a much greater chance of landing a full page, front page review than a visual artist who has 30 years of strong work and dedication to this town. The commitment and passion for the visual arts in general, and for the Chicago artist specifically, just isn't there. Now, I temper this somewhat by knowing that I may be a jaded old fart out of step with the wave of the future and those darn kids. But in a city this size, a handful of art reviewers is too much power in too few hands.

Q: Your work appears to widen out into the soft blur of memory. Or, if I follow it the opposite way, from the edges inward, your pieces draw me into a focused presence. I find viewing your work to be a cinematic experience. What's the action you're directing within your "frames?"

Paxton: I am very flattered that the one question about my work points to the physical, visual aspect and flavor of experience for the viewer. Over the years my drawings have grown to be room size in an effort to have them considered places, not things. The purpose behind this growth in scale and scope is three-fold: to study how the world is put together; what is the nature of perception; and how can that act of perception be advanced and enriched. I choose a landscape format for the work to compare and contrast the object vs. place conflict, as well as to afford myself large spaces to investigate where one thing is in relationship to another. Through the use of blurred and sharp focus, shifts in linear perspective, as well as the very nature of drawing as showing the bare structure of a thing, I free myself from any illustrative or literary symbolism when I work. As far as blurred memory is concerned, I'm not sure if growing up in the mountains of West Virginia has something to do with my sense of space and the loss of it or not. I also think that my choice of materials — charcoal, chalk and gesso — for use on canvas lends something to that effect, due to the media soaking into the canvas instead of riding on the surface.

I refer to a passage in David Sylvester's book Looking at Giacometti, where he observes that Giacometti and Cezanne were preoccupied with problems of "the elusiveness of the contour that separates volume and space, and the distance of things from the eye." This is not to say I put myself in this class by any means, but there is something to this that does point to my attitude and work.

Q: As an art teacher, in teaching the skills of the craft (apart from art history, etc.), do you find yourself describing these skills as the instruments of a poetic process, or as the tools of story-teller?

Paxton: I'm not sure I describe them as either. My primary concern in instructing drawing and painting is to get the student to stop thinking. That doesn't mean that during critiques we don't discuss what is going on in the work and what the work is pointing to and why that is. But during the process of the making of the thing, I stress to get to and value those rare moments when one achieves innocence and is able to make honest and authentic marks.

My approach as a teacher for beginning classes and those of more advanced level students is somewhat different. I guess the progression is this: first learn the vocabulary and how to speak the basics; second, develop a voice and explore the language; and third, now that you have a voice what are you going to say? Along with this, I stress what it means to be professional, to always give every job 110 percent no matter what the task, and to respect the fact that many are called but few are chosen. I always keep close to my heart that anything I say or do with a student has the power to change a life.

My mentor — the person who changed my life, Dr. June Kilgore, who just pasted away — was the one who in 20 minutes gave me the gift of a career as a professional fine artist. I teach to pay her back, and I remember her each and every time I stand before a class of hungry young hearts and minds.

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About the Author(s)

John Hospodka is a life-long Chicagoan, and today lives with his wife in Bridgeport. He does not profess to be an expert in anything; he's just a big fan of the arts and is eager to make more sense of them. Direct comments or suggestions for interviews to tqf@gapersblock.com.

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