The gallery assistant asked me how I learned about the exhibition. I told her that a former MFA student, Evan Halter, had suggested that I see it. Since I had just decided to review the show, Dana Powell: Burner, at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (June 6 – July 26, 2019) after walking around the gallery’s two upstairs spaces and studying all 15 paintings, I thought it was only right that I mention how I came to be standing on the other side of the counter from her.
I have not seen Halter in more than a year, and I can count on one hand the number of times that I have seen him in the past five years (twice). In all that time, this was the first exhibition that he recommended that I go see. Curious to know what Halter – a very good young painter in his own right – was excited about, I looked up examples of Powell’s work on the internet. That’s all I needed to convince me to go and see the actual works.
Of the 15 paintings in the exhibition, the largest ones are either 12 by 9 or 10 by 15 inches, while the smallest is 6 by 8 inches. The nub of the linen is often visible because Powell seems to prefer controlling a diluted medium versus applying a buttery one with broad strokes. It does not look like she reworks the surface.
The images range from an empty brown paper bag standing upright to the headlights of a lone car driving through a fog at night – tightly cropped close-up views, or things seen at a distance, often at night. In fact, six of the paintings are set at night.
The views are mundane, and, in some cases, familiar. We have likely seen two eggs frying in a cast iron pan on a gas-burning stove, or two orange warning cones on a stretch of highway at night. Other paintings might remind you of something seen in a movie, or summon an all-but forgotten memory of something seen in a dream. For all the realism of these precisely painted views, I do not think of them as realist paintings. This is not just because “Brown Bag” (2019) sits inside a reddish-orange abstract space, or that the cast iron pan in “Twins” (2019) is surrounded by shades of darkness. What is important to Powell is not what is seen, but what can evoke the feeling, mystery, pleasure, and weirdness of it.
In these paintings, Powell’s sense of color – the brown bag against reddish-orange, or the yellow and white of the eggs against different hues of black, with streaks of bright blue flames rising in it – prolongs my looking. Doesn’t the reflective cast iron feel as if it is sitting heavily on the stove? Don’t the yolks look a little too large? These and other distinctions lead to close scrutiny, which is part of the paintings’ power, as well as pleasure.
The other thing that struck me about this exhibition – the artist’s solo debut with the gallery – is that there was no discernible pattern to Powell’s subject matter. Yes, a number of them are night views, but a barely visible recovery ship, two highway cones lit by headlights, and an eight-sided swimming pool glowing softly in the dark do not appear to have much in common. I find this unpredictability particularly exhilarating because Powell has found a way to make it synonymous with aesthetic experience, which is held in low esteem these days.
In “Locker Room” (2019), Powell depicts a ceramic tile wall; the surface of the tile, arranged in a grid, has been mysteriously smashed, creating a little niche. Is this Powell’s comment on the tyranny of painting’s two-dimensional surface and the dominance of the grid? We have no idea how or why this destruction happened, only that it did. This is also true of the highway cones. Why are they there? What has happened to necessitate their use — road work or an accident?
To cite Jasper Johns’s famous statement about his choice of subject matter — “things which are seen but not looked at, not examined” — Powell can be expansive within her circumscribed views. In “Daisy Chain” (2019), she depicts two power strips whose seven outlets are being used to capacity by seven plugs, at once suggesting our reliance on the power grid and our overuse of resources. Here color again plays an important role, as the limited palette of gray, black, and white adds a level of emotion and a degree of unreality into the painting.
At a time when polemics and literalism dominate much of what is celebrated in the art world, Powell’s views are taut, nuanced, and restrained, while, paradoxically, also being richly evocative. They are moody but not overtly so. They are off-kilter but not in any obvious way. They are simultaneously dreamy and precise. In the images of fireworks, paint’s matter disperses across a monochromatic field, treading the border between abstraction and representation.
The scale of the paintings is central to our experience. Do not mistake small size for modesty. Powell wants to draw us in; she wants to make works that can sustain close looking. When have we thought about fireworks longer than their momentary passing? What comes after the predictable “uhhhs” and “ahhhs?”
Powell is not interested in making crowd-pleasers. She does not want to surrender the pleasure of solitude that is central to the sensuousness of painting. That makes her quietly and unmistakably radical.
Dana Powell: Burner continues at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 26.
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