Connecting the Dots

Painter David Maxwell appropriates a venerable 19th-century technique

Painter David Maxwell is sitting in the spacious backyard at his Miramar duplex (one of his daughters lives in the front half) when I arrive for a visit on a perfect South Florida Sunday morning. He and his wife of 33 years, Mary, have just returned from their customary weekend breakfast at their favorite diner. He's relaxing in the yard so that their two dogs can get comfortable enough with me that they won't be a distraction while we talk.

Maxwell, a Chicago native who's in his early 60s, is an imposing bear of a man, with a bushy beard that ranges from gray on the sides to snowy white in the center. As he freely admits, he likes to talk. He'll hold forth on theory, technique, you name it with the confidence of someone who has been doing what he does for a very long time.

With his meticulously constructed urban scenes, combining post-impressionist technique and modern subject matter, Maxwell has become one of South Florida's most admired and instantaneously recognizable painters. His curriculum vitae is a dense document full of his achievements, presented with no pretense to modesty. He claims that his work appeals not only "to children, neophytes, and everyday visitors" but also to "hypersnotty critics." (Having written favorably about his work a few times in the past, I hope I don't fall into the latter category.) He claims to have had works in hundreds of shows and won nearly 100 awards.

What Maxwell does, with great skill, is use opaque watercolor to capture construction sites. "They're so much more interesting under construction," he says. "I think the building has so much more visual dynamics when it's under construction." Not surprisingly, the artist worked in the construction business himself for nearly three decades; he devoted himself to art full time when, after his three children were grown, Mary went to work as an elementary-school teacher.

A typical Maxwell piece might feature a concrete mixer, a gigantic crane, a dumpster full of debris, scaffolding, or piles of construction materials. He often crops an image and then divides it between two canvases that can work together or apart. His Not Quite Plumb, which recently took second prize in the "30 Years, the Next Level" show at ArtServe, is a two-panel take on part of the Diplomat resort complex on the beach in Hollywood. An earlier piece called T.Y. Saurus gave a piece of heavy equipment at T.Y. (Topeekeegee Yugnee) Park in Hollywood the look of a mechanical dinosaur.

Photographs are instrumental in Maxwell's art. And yet he bristles at the notion of translating a photo into a painting. "First is the idea," he says. He approaches a subject with his interpretation of it in mind, he explains, but the result is always far from literal.

Instead, Maxwell uses one or more photographs of a construction site to re-create the site so that it's something that exists only in his imagination and on the canvas. He'll take elements from one photo and combine them with elements from another. "I refuse to accept the camera as anything other than a reminder," he says.

An extraneous item here is deleted, another item is added elsewhere to flesh out the composition. Maxwell mentions shifting some birds from one part of a painting to another to readjust the visual balance. An excess of empty sky in a photograph disappears as the image is rendered in watercolor.

Maxwell talks a lot about "negative space" and "a sense of place" when discussing his paintings. He cites a wide range of influences, from Marcel Duchamp to Paul Signac to modern composer John Cage.

At first glance, and especially from a slight distance, a Maxwell painting appears to be standard-issue photorealism. But on closer inspection, we can see that he has applied a technique associated with the late 19th Century to contemporary subject matter.

Maxwell has essentially revived, and converted to his own uses, pointillism, the technique employed by French neoimpressionist Georges Seurat (he called it divisionism) and one of his disciples, Signac. Seurat achieved mesmerizing effects by using tiny dots of paint that, taken together, form the image.

American artist Roy Lichtenstein used a similar ingredient -- the Ben Day dots of commercial graphics -- for much different effects in his comics-inspired paintings. Maxwell acknowledges both Seurat and Lichtenstein as influences, as well as the pixilated imagery of television and computers. He throws all these styles and techniques into his aesthetic blender and emerges with his own sensibility.

After our rambling discussion, Maxwell invites me into the duplex, where the small kitchen/dining room doubles as his studio. Mary has commandeered the lower tier of a bunk bed in a small bedroom as her studio, where she works on pottery to which she affixes shards of glass and other materials. Another room is a sort of library/office, filled with countless books, magazines, and brochures. A computer slide show displays an impressive sampling of the Maxwells' work.

Not many of Maxwell's paintings are on display in his house. He says he doesn't like to have a lot of completed work lying (or hanging) around. He prefers to keep as many paintings as possible in circulation, touring the country in traveling shows or on display in corporate or museum collections.

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