By Nancy Ellis
I’m not the same artist I was five or six years ago,” says New Mexico painter John Axton as he surveys a group of recently completed canvases destined for an upcoming gallery show in Denver, CO.
To anyone familiar with the sparse, haunting imagery on which Axton has built his career over the past several decades, this new work is familiar, yet undeniably different. Broader, more visible brush strokes reflect a loosening of Axton’s smooth style. And richer, more highly keyed colors result in part from his switch to Belgian oil paints, which were introduced to him by fellow artist Ramon Kelley.
Despite these changes, how-ever, the focus of Axton’s artwork remains constant. “My subject matter has always been space,” he says. “For me space is freedom, space is energy. A wide-open expanse can be confrontational—some people are panicked by it, others relish it. A successful spatial painting allows the viewer to connect with the image and participate in it. It’s really up to you, the viewer, what you do with it.”
In a book about his work [1989 Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale] Axton wrote, “To know my paintings is to know me.” Indeed, the sense of emptiness and desolation in his art reflects the loss and sadness Axton experienced while growing up in southern Illinois. His father died in the Korean War when Axton was a young child, and his stepfather wasn’t able to offer him much direction. In addition, his younger brother was born blind and required much of his mother’s attention.
Axton feels that the loss of his father before he had a chance to know him is the source of his work. “My relationship with my brother has also had a profound effect on how I see the world,” he says. Indeed, the influence of his brother’s blindness is clear. The emotion created by the color and depth of his surfaces is visceral; you can almost touch them with your fingertips to discern their meaning, like a blind person reading Braille.
After taking his first art class while a senior in high school, Axton decided to pursue a career in commercial art. He worked his way through Southern Illinois University’s commercial art program, graduated in 1967, and later accepted a job in Denver with an engraving company—an experience that would prove invaluable when he began to create original graphics.
During his spare time Axton painted for himself, and soon he began selling his works at summer art shows throughout the West. When he moved to New Mexico in 1979, Axton decided to devote himself to painting full time. For the next 10 years his work was inspired by the southwestern landscape and by the simplicity and spirituality of the Native American lifestyle he discovered in Taos, NM.
In the mid-1990s Axton relocated several times, first to New York City and later to Livingston, MT. Though he immersed himself in the artistic richness of these disparate communities, Axton was eventually drawn back to New Mexico. Today he paints in a studio located behind the Santa Fe gallery owned by his former wife and partner, Connie Axton, with whom he remains close. He recently bought a contemporary second-story loft in town and designed its interior. It is immaculate and sparsely furnished, decorated with small paintings and photographs by fellow artists.
There was a time when Axton did a thumbnail sketch of every composition before he began to paint, but these days he sometimes proceeds without one—perhaps part of the process of loosening up. He still tones the surface of each canvas, board, or paper with burnt sienna. “It’s a start,” says Axton. “Beginning a painting is one of the hardest parts. So is knowing when to stop. What happens in between is a piece of cake!”
Axton uses the photographs he takes during his frequent travels to stimulate ideas for paintings, and the carefully organized photo albums he’s assembled over the years constitute an encyclopedia of Axton subject matter. Since they are used only for reference, though, the quality of the photos is irrelevant. “Because so much of my work is abstract, blurred images can actually be helpful,” Axton explains. “Besides, nobody really sees objects and the landscape the way I do.”
Light, and the way light and shadow create form, is what Axton is looking for, both when he’s taking photographs and when he begins a painting in the studio. Color is always his tool of definition, and the variations and subtleties are endless. “I would love to do a whole series of black paintings,” he says, “and maybe one of these days I will, although it’s certainly not an original idea.” Axton’s reference is to a series of black paintings by Ad Reinhardt, whose work he admires along with that of another abstract expressionist, Mark Rothko.
An Axton painting is always a visual metaphor. Whether the imagery is shadows against adobe, dunes by the sea, a crescent moon above a winding road, or a skiff drifting in open water, the painting invariably takes the viewer on a solo search for meaning. Axton’s art can be devastating, with its intense isolation and palpable loneliness. But it can also be soothing in its compelling beauty. “A painting that allows you to confront it and embrace it is successful,” says Axton. “I don’t think good art should be safe; it should make you think.”
Photos courtesy the artist and Third Canyon Gallery, Denver, CO; Ventana Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Marco Fine Arts, Beverly Hills, CA; and S.E. Fineman, New York, NY.
Featured in April 1998