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Figures, word play and a splash of color – Mike Maxwell at Slingluff Gallery


What happens when you combine an obsession with old photography,  contemporary art themes and some wit? For San Diego based artist, Mike Maxwell, featured this month at Slingluff Gallery, it means a collection of pieces that examine modern day humanity’s struggle with power, inner peace, and self awareness.

Mike Maxwell, The Cove

I dropped in for Maxwell’s opening Nov. 6, and although he couldn’t physically be there, Mike was on Skype the entire night. Onlookers had the chance to observe the work before introducing themselves and asking questions over video chat. I talked to Mike, a young, laidback artist, a bit about process and inspiration.

Some of the things Mike, an established artist in San Diego,  is known for in his work are his deliberate use of color, gloomy images, and poetic scenes. Mike  told me that he has a bit of an obsession with photography from the 1890s to 1920s, and there is a clear influence of these photographs in his work, which are like old-fashioned portraits only more generic. We don’t know these people, but we sense an emotional connection between the artist and the man, woman or bird that’s portrayed.As a side note, I have to say how much I appreciate some of Maxwell’s titles. His word play in titles such as “The Heir Apparent,” “Barking at the Busters,” “The Blocks So Hot,” and “Lucky Lefty” features slant rhymes, alliteration, and an overall rhythm that captures the hip yet old-fashioned ambiance of the show.

Mike Maxwell, To Ensure Peace

All of the pieces on display are relatively small, but that is a perfect fit for Slingluff’s intimate space, which encourages a close look at details and fosters a reading of the works as a collection.  One of my favorites was “To Ensure Peace,” an ink on paper piece that features the image of a standing, war-like bird, it’s wings raised, feathers spread and eyes focused downward.  The bird is either looking at a reflection of itself in a puddle — or it’s caught another bird after some fight.  It’s not clear exactly what is going on. The ambiguity of this piece can also be found in others throughout the show. While the image of these birds is almost combative, the word “peace” is written in a starburst explosion in the sky. The juxtaposition of the image and the text is likely meant to be ironic, yet it allows for the piece to be read in several ways.

Mike Maxwell, A Collection of Moments

One of the highlights of this exhibition is the piece “A Collection of Moments,” an image of a young woman’s face. Her facial structure is simplistic, and Maxwell does not give every detail of her appearance. The detail, rather, is added in through his deliberate use of color: reds in the woman’s eyes and on her lip ring, the hushed blues that create the shadows and depth of her face. While the image is simple, it is incredibly striking and her gaze is captivating. The image is reminiscent of Steve McCurry’s iconic “Afghan Girl,” a photograph that captures the startling green eyes of his subject. While Mike may not be referring to this image, both subjects draw you in and their gazes create an unsettling, emotional attachment.

Mike Maxwell, The Perceptions of Power

“The Perceptions of Power,” an ink on paper work offers a heroic figure, with the word “power” written meekly in the stark white background. The image — which looks like it was based on a piece of antique statuary — captures the subject in a powerful stance with his shoulders back, chin up, and his eyes gazing off to the distance. They are old eyes, worn out and lacking focus, but they show his hesitation. Obviously a noble in a position of authority, he is trained to to stand straight, but his eyes give away his weariness.   Power comes with a price.

Much of the work is simple and rather commercial feeling. However, the spare use of color conjures up something ghostly and romantic — and old fashioned.

“Minor Superior,” at the Slingluff Gallery on Girard Avenue, is open until November 28 and is definitely worth a look.