There are certain artists whose work appeals to art sophisticates and the uninitiated alike. Former Northwest resident and current New Yorker John Powers is one of those artists. Drawing on a host of influences ranging from sci-fi to minimalist sculpture, Powers creates abstract wooden constructions and works on paper that are as intricate as they are labor-intensive. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, visited his first one person show in Seattle, now at Solomon Fine Art in Belltown. Here is his review.
How can artwork — by nature, frozen in time — express motion and change? Artists, especially modern artists, have long been fascinated with this question. Marcel Duchamp’s, "Nude Descending a Staircase," became famous for its cubist solution to the problem, while the futurists made capturing the sensation of speed the centerpiece of their entire movement. More recently, contemporary architects have won great acclaim for buildings that seem captured in mid-process, unfolding or disassembling before our eyes — Seattle’s Experience Music Project being a prime example.
Artist John Powers taps into some of these same energies with his complex and compelling sculptures, works that express action and process, growth and evolution. It is impossible to look at these dense wooden constructions without sensing their intense inner restlessness. Several sculptures seem to explode outwards, while another seems to whirl like a top, shedding parts as it turns.
In an original twist, these elegant, vaguely architectural objects are constructed entirely of tiny wooden blocks, their shapes based on building sets developed for children, long ago. The largest work, "White Rows," consists of thousands of identical matchbox sized-pieces, built up block by block over several weeks to sprawl fully ten feet across the gallery floor. It’s central section, the general size and shape of a truck tire, has been crafted with an open, herringbone pattern. Open enough that we get to look deep inside, past row upon precise row of angled blocks, seeing worlds within worlds.
This gnarly central core is surrounded by advancing armies of yet more blocks, carefully glued groupings giving way to smaller, merely balanced piles, all radiating out like the flares around the sun. An errant step could knock over dozens. The gallery is prepared to reconstruct when necessary.
Less precarious, but no less dynamic are Powers’ smaller, wall-mounted sculptures. Here the blocks, though still cut to a strict proportional system, are no longer identical in size. This size change is used to great advantage in the compact work entitled, "Bud Lake." Its ovoid shape strongly suggestive of the floral bud of its title, "Bud Lake" also brings to mind those same buds seen in time-lapse photography. Angled wooden blocks become progressively smaller as the piece moves from sculpture base to sculpture front, where tiny rectangular rods push the smallest pieces still further out in space, like the slowly emerging tendrils of new growth.
Not surprisingly, flowers are only one of many earthly forms suggested by the various wall pieces. "Lumbar Jack" leans out from the wall in clear imitation of the human spine, while "Yellowcake" is vaguely reminiscent of science fair 3-D models of atomic structure. Cities of the future and space ships are also a reference, particularly in a spectacular construction with the yin/yang title of "Sci-Fi Wahabi." Exploding outwards in two split but symmetrical halves, the sculpture is packed with appendages, its business end a fantastically complex affair suggesting wood block antennas, cranes, weaponry, and other interstellar ephemera — all with an underlying debt to the geometrical abstractions of the Russian Constructivists.
As though the multiples lines of inquiry revealed by the sculptures were not enough, Powers has recently begun to create independent works on paper. The artist pastes gorgeously colored tiny rectangles in layer upon angled layer, a two-dimensional version of the working method used for his sculptures. The final effect is dense and shimmering. The gallery window on First Avenue displays both a sculpture and a drawing based on the same abstracted shape — cool and intellectual in the sculpture, all fire and ice in the drawing.
It is said that successful art careers are often built on just one or two good ideas. John Powers, a young artist on his way up, has already long passed that landmark. His first show in Seattle is one of the strongest exhibits of the season.