For a professional critic, the chance to be an amateur is heady stuff. Wednesday at 8 p.m., "At the Movies" cohost Gene Siskel gets that chance when he interviews artist and fellow Chicagoan Roger Brown at the Hirshhorn. "I'm here to talk about Roger's work, to learn more about it -- no movie talk as far as I'm concerned," says Siskel. "Next to my family, art -- collecting it, looking at it, reading about it, absorbing it -- is my biggest passion at this point in my life."

And he's long been a fan of Brown's moody, off-kilter work (critic Carry Rickey called him "the painter of the American nightmare"). The first painting Siskel bought as a young collector was a Brown. And now "Tropical Storm," one of two Brown paintings he owns, is on display at the "Roger Brown" retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

"Asking questions out of your field, you have the freedom to ask 'silly questions,' basic things, things like, How do you decide how thick to paint? How much paint to use? How do you start? How do you know when you're finished? ...

"These are the kinds of things a professional art critic probably wouldn't bother to ask, things I might not ask a film director," Siskel says. But he may redesign some of his more effective "At the Movies" questions. One of his favorites is: If you could only keep one shot out of your entire film, which would it be? "You really learn a lot with that question," he says. So at the very least, one may find out which of his haunting works most represents the soul of Roger Brown.

The program is sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associates. The slide-illustrated discussion begins at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Hirshhorn Auditorium. There will be a reception afterwards. For more information, call 357-3030.