Power (2014) by Margaret Bowland. All images courtesy of Driscoll Babcock gallery.

Margaret Bowland, “Power” (2014) (all photos by Stan Narten, JSP Photography, courtesy of the artist and Driscoll Babcock gallery)

One intuits immediately, on walking into the Driscoll Babcock gallery and seeing the large, mythic paintings of Margaret Bowland’s Power exhibition, that Bowland is not interested in power in terms of optics, math, or computing. The painter is wrestling with the difficult, unwieldy affairs of human social interaction, both abstract and concrete: economic power, police power, physical power, that ability to influence that is inescapable. Bowland is brave to take this on, because power is a bitch to untangle from other elemental aspects of our existence. How to see it as distinct from need, desire, or fate? In fact, how can we see it at all? Similar to other facets of our being that exist in the ether of potential, like energy or intuition, power itself is difficult to picture; we tend to notice it after it has been enacted, when it is indexically signified. When the rundown property has been purchased and turned into expensive condominiums, only then do we understand what power has left in its wake.

This theme is a good match for Bowland’s large-scale portraiture, which veers from realistic figuration toward fantasy. The artist found a clever way to make the workings of monetary power visible: instead of dealing with its effects, she pictorially represents the talismanic objects that are, in reality, charged with the capacity to relay power and thus exert influence on us — that is, cash currency. In her paintings’ stylized schemes shaped by a kind of magical realism, the currency that symbolizes power is ubiquitous; it is the glamor adorning several of her portrait subjects. But she seems to know that power also morphs. It is rendered as mutable symbols, lines of force, a flowing pigment that stains wherever it lands. Here, power is simultaneously itself and something else: both/and, instead of either/or.

The preface to the tale lies in her installation piece, “The Watchers” (2015), in which Bowland uses US, Indian, and Chinese currency to create an incongruous briar patch. Some currency is shredded and left on the floor, but most of it is folded into flower forms through which barbed wire is threaded to make garlands that whirl around the gallery’s pillars and up to the ceiling. Attached to this unnatural garden are a few synthetic crows in flight that evince an eerie, sinister feel. The money used for this work is real: according to Bowland, about $2,000. This voiding of financial value feels like both a victory over money’s hold on our imaginative faculties and a waste of its potential. It is an absurd gesture that aptly matches the absurdity of money’s hold on consciousness. Looking at “The Watchers,” I laugh and shake my head at the same time.

Tangled up in Blue (2015) diptych.

Margaret Bowland, “Tangled up in Blue” (2015), diptych

From that supernatural garden, power moves out to become tchotchkes of decorative adornment that nevertheless denote status. In the painting “15 in 2015” (2015), US $100 bills are made into hair adornments wrapped up in the blonde locks of an ingénue who, being shipwrecked, is slowly losing these trinkets, along with all her other possessions, to the sea. In “Power” (2014), the money is on fire, raining down around the central figure like a biblical plague. In “One Child” (2015), flowered currency with barbed stems floats around the figure of a young girl as part of the enchantment that makes her hair waft to the sky. In the diptych “Tangled Up in Blue” (2015), Bowland extends the reach of her conceit by using errant stylistic lines of paint — “power marks” or “energy marks,” as she calls them. In this work, a father and son occupy different frames of reality (in a Park Avenue apartment, according to the press release). Yet despite inhabiting different physical and generational spaces, they are marked by meandering blue paint, and the boy is mesmerized by it. This image suggests that power can escape its symbolic trappings to mutate and metastasize uncontrollably.

Installation view.

Margaret Bowland, ‘Power,’ installation view

Bowland has reportedly said that whenever she makes a purchase she feels she is being watched — as if her money carries a spell of surveillance. And she does indeed make the omnipresence of financial power clearly felt throughout this exhibit. Yet though she turns the energy of that surveillance back upon the object, though she destroys it and transforms it into symbols of meaning for the narrative she has devised, money ultimately seems immune to this alchemy. There are other powers Bowland contends with, too: youth, sexuality, femininity, masculinity, even ethnicity. They all ensorcell us, holding us still while a conjurer picks our pockets and makes off with our stern convictions and principles. Some may still imagine that if we only make the regimes of influence visible and palpable, that might inoculate us to their effects. But apprehensible or not, the abstracted power of money seems here to be very much the poison fruit of a poison garden.

15 in 2015 (2015)

Margaret Bowland, “15 in 2015” (2015)

Margaret Bowland: Power continues at Driscoll Babcock gallery (525 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until December 19.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

7 replies on “Portraits that Attempt to Untangle Power”

  1. The strength of these paintings is in Bowland’s ability to paint black skin. Steven Scott Young has it down too, painting black girls, but with less technical showiness and more nuance. Kehinde can’t paint black skin, which is why his work is now made in a Chinese factory with no noticeable difference. It really doesn’t matter. Couldn’t do that with the above, or Bob Thompson’s realist works, etc.

    The weakness in Bowland’s paintings is their pandering to lowest common denominators – the bravado realism, the rainbow palette, the grab bag of public concerns, and uncomplicated didacticism of it all. It’s cringe-inducing. But props to her for painting black folks and “black” issues without being pegged as a racist or being exploitive.

    1. “Pandering to lowest common denominators?” What on earth do you mean? Is it realism, or bravado realism that is the issue? The rainbow palette bothers you, after you said in the previous paragraph she has the ability to paint black skin? The grab bag of public concerns: are you suggesting painters should only address private concerns? The uncomplicated didacticism : that really throws me. What lesson do you suppose she imparts?

      1. Dear Deep Thinker,

        If I were you I would ignore Harper, who tends to only troll writing I do that pertains to race and its politics. He is consistently dishonest and uninformed, and even racist, but nevertheless strident in his opinions. Bowland gave a talk at the gallery a few days back and her take on what she’s doing is impassioned and principled. What’s more, when I first looked at the work I thought it was compelling, so am glad I had the opportunity to write about it.

        1. Thanks for the guidance, Seph. I too am glad you had the opportunity to write about this show, and I would love to hear what the artist had to say in her talk.

          1. One of the things she said that really stayed with me was that she thought that in the US, in the majority of interactions with people of color, the first thing we see is color and we immediately start drowning in the host of signified assumptions, and we, most of us, just struggle in the first few moments to get back up to the surface and breathe, just breathe.

          2. That strikes me as a true perception. On a related note, I have been struck by the growing number of artists who paint people submerged, overwhelmed, inundated by water such as Alyssa Monks and Mark Heine, wondering if this imagery is a visual metaphor for our experience in the world today. Drowning not in love’s decree (I think that is Carly Simon’s line) but perhaps in fear?

      2. Just watch a Michael Bay movie then look at her work again. If people like movies of fighting robots destroying cities, why not appreciate some fighter jets carpet bombing a Turner painting while a blonde girl drowns? There is nothing morally wrong with either, but it’s basically a special effects orgy with little take away. It’s gimmicky and shallow.

        As for the author’s kind words for me, you’ll just have to read for yourself the written exchanges to see if such silly claims are true (or, maybe just maybe, they’re ad hominems to distract you?). I recommend his bombastic “disrupting white supremacy” article. I entered the discussion only after he was called out.


        As for the author, you can see his very last article was considered “bigoted” and ‘uneducated’. Not by me, but by others.


        Deep Thinker, guide yourself.

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