Alex Powers: Inquiries into Being

I still remember standing in the middle of my studio, ‘I will take the prettiness out of my paintings and see if there is any art left.’

- Alex Powers

 

Alex Powers’ artwork may not be conventionally pretty, but there is a formal beauty in the lushness of his surfaces that goes beyond conventional prettiness, and the content of his work, while deeply challenging at times, has enormous critical relevance to the culture he lives in. Powers creates works with sometimes biting critiques of social justice issues like racial and gender inequality, but he also addresses a broad range of other societal issues from religion and politics to economics, history and literature. In every case his work is framed within the context of a heavily worked surface – usually of gouache, charcoal and pastel on paper or illustration board – that marries energetic expressive brushwork and mark making, strongly rendered subjects and fragments of text. Over the course of time, he has come to use his artistic skills to give voice to an array of political and social issues that have at their heart a concern for basic human dignity.

Powers is an artist who is difficult to categorize in an art world that loves neat and tidy classifications. He frequently uses traditional media like watercolor and gouache (he is one of the most popular watercolor workshop instructors in the country), but his work and workshops can hardly be described as traditional. Combining these media with collaged elements as well as charcoal and pastel, he creates large narrative pieces that are informed by current affairs, both social and political. The artist is well aware of the trends in contemporary art. His style is a gestural realism grounded in drawing that is closely related to the work of Larry Rivers, a postwar American artist associated with pop art. Rivers’ work combined the loose gestural mark making of abstract expressionism with realistically rendered images drawn from history and popular culture. Powers’ use of that visual language to address social and cultural issues, particularly issues of race and class, is his greatest strength.

Born in the mountains of Virginia in 1940, Powers came into the art world by a distinctly atypical path. As a young man he worked in his father’s Virginia coal mine. He taught high school math for several years after college before he took a job as a computer programmer at the Kennedy Space Center. Powers had always drawn, but during this time he started taking art classes, studying drawing and painting in art schools in Florida, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

His next position, teaching art in a black junior high school in Greensboro, NC during the height of segregation was a formative experience in a number of different ways. It’s tempting to identify that time as a significant point in his journey towards making socio-political art. But Powers says that the actual process wasn’t a dramatic one, but something that happened gradually as he worked to educate himself and then make paintings about what he’d learned. “As I educated myself when I was mature enough to do so, which unfortunately was after college, my opinions about life developed.  And since I was a painter and, like all artists, needed an expression (content) to my paintings, it was a marriage.”

A more immediate effect of his experience teaching art was a new level of self-confidence in his ability to manipulate his materials in service to representation. About that experience, Powers says, “I would ask a student or teacher to pose after school for a portrait; propped the portrait on a table in the teachers’ lounge the next day; school principal thought I possessed some kind of magic since I could capture a likeness.”

In 1969 Powers moved to Myrtle Beach where he threw himself into working full-time on his art. That move is number one on his list of the biggest joys in his life. The other two flow out from the first – educating himself and making paintings of what he has learned. And for the past forty years Powers has done just that, building a successful career as a self-employed full-time artist and teacher. The artist made his early career dominating the Southeastern watercolor scene, taking the top awards in the juried exhibitions that are so much a part of that world and filling workshop after workshop with painters eager to pick up some of his skill in painting the human figure.

The move to more socio-political work gradually developed, becoming his dominant concern by the early 1990s. As a friend and fellow artist says,  ”Most artists are angry early and mellow later in life. Alex is just the opposite.” A recent well-deserved retrospective of the Powers’ work from the past twenty years, Alex Powers: Inquiries, provides a critical focus on some of the artist’s most powerful work. The exhibition originated at the Franklin G. Burroughs–Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum in Myrtle Beach and then travelled to the 701 Center for Contemporary Art in Columbia.

The title, Inquiries, is an apt description for the approach the artist takes. He is omnivorous in the range of subjects that he explores. Powers is not a didactic artist; instead he raises issues, asking questions that prod the viewer towards their own conclusions. It is also an appropriate description of his process. Samuel Beckett, 1996, is not only a portrait of the famous 20th century author and playwright, but also a visual record of Powers’ study of him. The viewer has the sense of seeing inside the artist’s private journals or sketchbook. The actual act of making the work is a way of developing understanding, of investigating Beckett as a man, as an artist and as a philosophical descendent of the French philosopher, Descartes. As in most of his work, text is a critical component of the work – written, erased, covered with a wash of opaque paint and then overlaid with more text and images. The pencil and the brush are always searching for just the right line or contour to reveal the inner meaning of the subject. The piece explores the development of the modern world’s concept of being, of existentialism, and the definition of reality.

His work teeters between representation and abstraction in a way that has the image merging and emerging from an ambiguous background. While the backgrounds, the negative spaces, may seem empty, they perform a very conscious vital role in the paintings and drawings, giving the viewer breathing spaces or rest areas in the paintings. The strategy is important compositionally, but also conceptually, providing a moment of silence in works full of ideas.

The contemporary art world has had an almost puritanical focus on political and social “relevance” to the exclusion of formal and aesthetic concerns. Artists have tended to selectively pick social issues that are in some way safe, either because of distance or the mainstream nature of the issue. For these artists making work with a social or political message would appear to be more of a career choice than one of passionate engagement with community. Coupled with the tendency to make work that is so devoid of aesthetics that it is frankly visually boring, this has ironically had the effect of making contemporary art less relevant to the average viewer, increasing the distance between art and life rather than bringing them closer together.

The most successful social commentators in the history of art also created beautiful work, work whose formal qualities drew viewers to engage in the work long enough to look a second time, to perceive the message underneath. Those formal qualities border on the sublime and horrible in works like Delacroix’s Raft of the Medusa for example, but those are the factors that embed raw images into unforgettable memories.

Powers is one of very few Southern artists — or more nationally known contemporary artists for that matter — who deals with issues of race and class, grounded in his immediate culture, with such direct honesty. While his work is not pretty, there is more than enough formal depth, the true meaning of beauty, to carry whatever message he chooses to deliver. He creates work that is just as engaging formally as it is conceptually.

The Time Has Come, 1993, is one of his early pieces addressing issues of race. Text dominates the image, carrying most of the visual and conceptual weight. But the human figure is still present, delivered with subtle nuances – the edge of a figure on the left; a more fully outlined one in the center with head downcast, and a loosely rendered face on the right. The main text reads, “the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise.” The phrase is repeated in several places, reinforcing the call to act, creating the feeling of multiple voices raised at the same time. The text plays the role of the artist’s voice, sometimes whispering subtle hints and questions. Sometimes that voice becomes thunderously enraged, taking center stage and commanding attention. In every case though, the words Powers uses are an integral part of the composition, not just a simple add-on.

Race is only one of the social issues dominating cultural discourse. Religion, particularly in the South, is a framework for approaching almost all social and political dialogs. Powers doesn’t shy away from critiquing religion anymore than he does politics. And the Skies Remained Empty, 1998, has biblical ring both to its title and its emphasis on the word. The top two-thirds of the composition is filled with a darkness that really isn’t empty. The value is created from multiple layers of words and marks built up to create a “sky” that more solid than void. Below that weight are four views of the same head – the haloed image of Jesus from popular biblical illustrations – each turned in a different direction. The eyes of the first three are downcast, in either contemplation or disappointment. The fourth, tinged a darker value than the usual pure whiteness of Western iconography, gazes up at the title floating on top of the darkness.

A thoughtful consideration of social justice in this country includes issues of economic as well as racial inequality. The demonstrations of the Occupy movement have brought issues of class to the forefront so that they are finally being discussed in the popular media. But artists like Powers have been focused on the issue for much longer. $8 Per Hour, dating back to 2003, incorporates text and image in equal measure in a composition laid out like a newspaper. Under a banner proclaiming “The Peoples News,” is a headline in bold type, all caps, “30% OF US WORKFORCE TOILS FOR $8 PER HOUR OR LESS.” Powers literally puts a face to the issue by using a frontal view of a man of color rendered in detail in charcoal and dripping paint to hold the center of the composition. Four other faces drawn in fast gestural marks distributed across the bottom of the piece, overlaying columns of text. The artist creates tension in his work through several juxtapositions – realism and abstraction, text and image, form and content. Using implied and actual collage techniques, he pulls images and issues from popular culture and reframes them within his “inquiry”. Part of the meaning of the work comes from that transformation.

Not all of the artist’s work has such heavy content. He uses a similar approach to explore more mundane aspects of the world around him. Living in Myrtle Beach means that he is surrounded by surf, sand and golf courses. So it’s not surprising that these subjects show up in his drawings and paintings as well. But these pieces are not simply renderings of commercially appropriate subjects. In The Anatomy of a Seascape, for example, Powers creates a witty analysis of the proverbial seascape scene. The tired, old “beach scene” cliché is transformed into a conceptual analysis of the subject as well as the process of painting.

 

Powers’ integration of expressive painting with vital, relevant content leads to very powerful and moving artwork. Like a modern Goya, Hogarth or Daumier, he combines a confident exploitation of his medium and dynamic compositions in service to a clearly defined message, making commentary on a broad range of relevant social and cultural issues. The viewer can’t help but be moved.

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