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This article by F.R. Rivera was prepared for the October 13, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Surge of Ideas on Canvas

The Mariboe Gallery at the Peddie School in Hightstown annually shows work by members of the school’s talented art faculty. Opening on Friday, October 15, is an exhibition by Michael Maxwell, art instructor and coordinator of the school’s visiting artists’ program. It will be his second solo exhibition.

Artists are by nature inquiring and prone to theorize. Maxwell is no exception. Formal studies in psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and cognitive science offer more than enough fire power to defend any posture a painter might take. Maxwell bundles ideas into his painting. Paintings of course are not expositions of theory. To the viewer it is of little consequence whether they had their origin as brain waves in a lucid dreamer or as a TV test pattern. In the end a painting succeeds or fails on formal grounds.

Maxwell’s work has evolved in recent years from performance-based events (which occur in real time) to traditional painting. Though he is now pursuing what is sometimes called "easel-painting," he works on his canvas in positions that alternate between wall and floor. The finished work is also exhibited un-stretched. Maxwell likes the look of the unfurled canvas on the wall. Since the work measures on average 10 to 12 feet, unstretched canvasses are also more practical to move around.

The artist also prefers industrial tarps, grommets and all, to store-bought canvas. His palette of choice is off-the-shelf Home Depot latex. His colors are industrial strength. Maxwell starts by laying down a series of looping lines and templates that configure into shimmering grills or solid fills. Other lines expand and spread like an electromagnetic field. His is not graffiti art, but it is no less combustible, bringing to mind the work of Crash, Daze, and Dondi, those fabulous miscreants who first hit the New York subway in the early 1970s.

The difference between graffiti’s tags and Maxwell’s templates turns on whether the images are referential or not. Graffiti is always a boiler plate. Maxwell is studiously anonymous. If any recognizable figure emerges it is only by chance. A rare exception is a phantom white female figure in a painting entitled "Invitation." He is deeply interested in the art of indigenous cultures. This is an art owned more by the culture than by the individual. Images are received as the shaman receives healing powers from the gods.

Maxwell earned his degree in art history at the University of Oklahoma, and later an M.F.A. degree at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School. A year before his graduation from Oklahoma, he presented a paper entitled "Shamanism and Spirituality in the Work of Andy Goldsworthy." A contemporary sculptor-craftsman, Goldsworthy is best known for Leafworks, objects painstakingly assembled and pinned and stitched together by thorns and twigs. For Maxwell these objects revisit the scared and ritual traditions of Native American art.

Early on Maxwell became acquainted with the art of the Sioux in North Dakota. His interests in Native American art were reinforced by the artist-printmaker Edgar Heap of Birds, Maxwell’s teacher at the University of Oklahoma; and he began to investigate images that are at once tribal and visionary. Images created by indigenous peoples are, of course, ignorant of the foibles and the faddism of contemporary art. Maxwell has chosen – for the moment at least – to likewise ignore contemporary art

Maxwell’s paintings are aerial views. They are big topological maps. They look and feel like color-coded weather maps bristling with moving systems – volatile and agitated. In carving up these immense spaces he uses a branching technique: Arteries spread tenaciously until they burst into clusters and globes or they scramble like fast-moving storms. Vigorous brushwork resulting in residual drips and spatters recalls the "action painting" of the 1950s, a period the artist admires.

Students of art history will find a variety of influences in Maxwell’s work. These are as diverse as Clifford Still and Jean Dubuffet. In the end however, this young painter from the West is doing his own thing. Born and raised at the crossroads of America where I-40 and I-35 intersect in Oklahoma City, he brought to the East some of those big breezy spaces and filled them with New York exuberance. If you like his work at Peddie you can follow the Sunfactory in Tribeca for a one-night event on Saturday November 13. For more information on that event go to: kspill.com.

In the meantime, do not miss a stimulating presentation of his ideas on opening night at the Mariboe Gallery.

– F. R. Rivera

Michael Maxwell: New Work at the Mariboe Gallery, Peddie School, Hightstown. Opening Friday, October 15, 6:30 to 9 p.m. Artist’s presentation 7:15 to 7:45. To November 6. Gallery hours, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 609-490-7550.


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