Back to the Land: Andy Paczos documents nature’s reemergence from industrial decay

"Former Offices Along Ogden Avenue," oil on linen, by Andy Paczos; courtesy of the Hyde Park Art Center
Ever since the development of the first daguerreotype, photography has been threatening to completely eclipse the field of realist painting. The contemporary art scene seems to support this move, but it is exhibits like Andy Paczos’s “Abandoned Demolition,” on view at the Hyde Park Art Center until May 2, that remind us why the practice of using a paintbrush to conjure reality will never lose its relevancy.

A collection of fourteen oil paintings, “Abandoned Demolition” is the result of a three-year project dedicated to the exploration of a deserted fifteen-acre lot that was previously the site of the Chicago Paperboard Company. Each work presents a unique view of the area; vistas range from a small area of cement to a panorama of the site and the Chicago skyline behind it.

While most pieces lean towards the larger end of this spectrum, encompassing gigantic piles of dirt and debilitated warehouses, half-broken chain link fences and past-their-prime orange safety cones, the two or three that offer zoomed-in views give the exhibit an aspect of thoughtful, observant depth. One such work examines what is at most a twelve- or thirteen-inch crack in cement, out of which spindly flowers are growing and casting shadows. Another, exhibited cleverly on the floor to make the viewer peer downward as Paczos had to, gives an overhead view of a rodent skeleton that has not yet lost all its flesh and fur. Highly reminiscent of Frederick Sommer’s photographs of decomposing animals in the American Southwest, this particular work by Paczos is not the only one that brings photography to mind.

The ghosts of Walker Evans and William Eggleston seem to hang about “Abandoned Demolition.” It’s difficult to perceive Paczos’s work without feeling that it’s been influenced by their legacy of American realist photography. This, of course, goes against all expected intuitions: isn’t it painting that influences photography? But in Paczos’s circumstance, the opposite truly appears to be the case. His work inherits the sensibility of a documentary camera, using his canvas instead of a negative to capture the decay of urban life and industrialism.

Such decay, though, seen through Paczos’s eye, is less a narrative of the failures of modernity than it is of the inevitability of a return to nature and a clearing of debris for a brighter future. It is in this aspect that he is able to distinguish his paintings as paintings and not as stand-ins for photographs. The works in “Abandoned Demolition” all benefit from the unique addition of the very human element of hope. Amidst rubble and wreckage, small spots of vibrant green weeds poke through with the promise of life and vegetation. Skies glow a cheery blue and soft, radiant sunlight infiltrates almost every painting. The graffiti covering the sides and rears of buildings and half-crumbled walls is presented with a positive slant, conjuring thoughts of public art rather than defacement of property. Earthy colors triumph in Paczos’s palette, which gives warm tans, browns, blues, and greens preference over cool industrial grays and blacks. When grays and blacks do find their way onto canvases, they are informed by other colors, giving them a richness and depth.

Paczos offers the lonely Chicago areas that serve as subject matter for his “Abandoned Demolition” hope for the future, leaving viewers with a hunger to see such brightness in all the run-down lots in this city. And although Paczos approached the series with a photographer’s eye, he executed it with a painter’s brush, adding both texture and a certain something that a camera can never capture.

Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Through April 5. Monday-Thursday, 9am—8pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, noon-5pm. hydeparkart.org