I’m completely at home with these nearly flat, mostly rectangular, puzzle-like constructions, made up of paper, paint, wood and glue, that hang on the wall. They appear to happily make do with whatever patchy, banged up, nail-holed scraps of wallboard were available. There is much evidence of the good luck of finding just the right piece. There is also much evidence of the hard work involved in cutting it so precisely that even rough edges fit the design. And that design is quite enjoyable—enhanced with just enough color and paint to keep it lively but never overwhelming. Any path the eye may take always leads to a pleasant surprise.
There’s no idealism or transcendent vision here. The abstract designs of an early Modernist like El Lissitzky might proclaim, “Let’s build a new society!” In contrast, these pieces say something like, “I’d rather get by with the mess we’ve already got.” There’s no angst or despair or psychological confession. There’s no suggestion that anything is more important than just enjoying this moment of awareness. Random and endless challenges have been inventively accommodated. If I may speak for my fellow urban, educated, secular, white male baby boomers—that’s mostly what we want from life. We’ve had it pretty easy and we’d just like to keep it that way.
These are pieces that appear to have grown on their own, which is nearly how the artist has explained his working method. To begin, he puts one roughly rectangular, small piece of wallboard down onto the floor, then he puts another that goes with it, and then a third that goes with the first two, and so on. That also seems to be how he has assembled the strings of words used for titles, such as: “Jumble-there-now-result” or “So this-that-combines.”
Nothing is explicitly represented though many things are suggested. The pieces resemble the square grids of QR codes on advertising posters. The design is so complex and intense, you’re sure it can be decoded into some complicated message, maybe even the profound kind appropriate to important art. They also resemble sewing patterns, with several edges that follow the contours of human body parts like arms, legs or breasts, along with the occasional writing that aids the assembly process. They even bring to mind aerial views of small towns and rural areas, with random checkerboards of fields, ponds and roads. Overall, this is a picture of human civilization: it’s new, it’s old, it endures, it’s comfortable.
Powell’s prior work appears to have been more experimental—querying how one kind of graphic pattern might interact with another. Now he appears to have no involvement with the visual world other than to find a way to enjoy it. You might call this the wisdom of age. Though in one piece, “Joined-then-separated later,” it appears that the upper right-hand corner is about to break away and emerge as a separate and more dynamic expression. I hope it succeeds and begins yet another cycle in this artist’s long career. (Chris Miller)
“Gordon Powell: Stray Cats,” at McCormick Gallery, 835 West Washington, through December 21.