The struggle between man and nature reflected in the urban landscape has been a potent theme in visual art since the Industrial Revolution. Some artists, in their celebration of the geometric forms of the modern city, deliberately left no room for nature or even humanity; Charles Sheeler was one such painter. Others stressed the fleetingness of the cityscape and the constant, looming presence of wild nature just beneath the pavement.
What’s interesting about Andy Paczos’s work in his new exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center, Abandoned Demolition, is that it charts a middle course between these two extremes. His landscapes document a momentary truce between man and nature, and evoke the serenity of abandonment in the midst of the city’s din.
The 13 works on view depict the former site of the Chicago Paperboard Company plant on Elston and Ogden Avenues. Painted between 2005 and 2008, years after the paper plant’s demolition, the works show what’s left after industry leaves: cracked concrete, broken brick, and the plant’s crumbling foundation walls, covered in weeds.
Paczos, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, works with an honesty and simplicity little seen in today’s art world. He paints on site, insisting on capturing the light in one session and drawing the preliminary lines directly onto his final canvas—and seldom if ever touches up his paintings back at the studio. This simplicity of technique works to his advantage in Abandoned Demolition, where the meticulously painted landscapes draw our attention not to the bigger picture—the relationship between man and nature—but to the purely visual qualities of the objects depicted.
With the horizon line near the top of the linen canvas, Paczos paints panoramas of the site and its seasonal variations. The bustling city cluttering the horizon appears distant and inert. Paczos, like any good landscape artist, captures the pale light of winter and bronze summer sunshine with considerable aplomb. But many of these paintings are relentlessly horizontal, creating an impression almost of an urban prairie land.
By contrast, his two works entitled “Outside Property Along Elston Avenue” and “Kenny Construction Replacing Sewer Pipe Along Elston Avenue” break up this monotony with, in the former, the voluminous forms of summer trees and twirling vines, and in the latter, the mournful lines of dead winter trees. “Kenny” is especially effective in its subtle intermingling of natural and man-made objects. While the construction equipment and telephone lines mirror the branches and trunks of the foreground trees, the wood shavings around the base of the trunks testify to the continued existence of beavers along Chicago’s riverfront, which can be just barely glimpsed at the top right corner.
Pazcos also gives us four canvases that focus on objects at the artist’s feet: an opossum carcass, new growth on top of dead plants, an open conduit, and the pattern left by a plant in the wind. The curators have laid the opossum canvas on a raised platform instead of hanging it on the wall, as if to replicate the experience of suddenly encountering a dead animal at one’s feet. But the painting itself is anything but gruesome—the animal is curled up, lying on its side on a piece of concrete. The cut I-beam near the carcass doesn’t threaten or intrude. Similarly, his painting of an open conduit with flowering weeds mingles the natural and artificial; the rusting wires poking out of the hole are almost indistinguishable, at first glance, from the weeds.
Realistic landscape certainly isn’t on the cutting edge of contemporary art, and one question we have to ask is how does Paczos avoid photography’s shadow? Paczos’s paintings are meticulous and visually pleasing, but do they give us something a photograph couldn’t? For me, the answer is yes—in certain respects. Most of all, the time and effort that painting requires somehow reveals itself to the viewer in these paintings and becomes part of the experience of enjoying them. I don’t want to bring up old, outdated terms, but somehow the landscapes, painted on-site with a minimum of gimmicks or tricks, have an authenticity that a photograph often lacks.
Still, authenticity in this sense is something all paintings possess. What Paczos really needs to distance himself from photography is a distinctive point of view. In a way, by choosing to paint what he does, he reveals his unique perspective. What Paczos gives us is not the victory of “good” nature over “bad” man; the Chicago Paperboard site is not an ancient ruin, but simply a plot of land lying fallow that will soon be reconverted into condos. Nature isn’t launching a reconquista so much as crashing on the couch for a while. Yet sometimes his paintings simply feel like exercises in recording visual information. They lack thought, for want of a better term. This conceptual simplicity is both the charm and the ultimate limitation of Paczos’s art.