Picture: A modern-day cathedral with soaring ceilings, marble floors, light windows that inspire rapture. Pan out to: Towers of hand-painted collages and text-based signs with a pop 1950's feel. Seem out of place? Without a doubt, unless you're talking about a religious experience designed as a beacon to summon the hipsters of today. This is the space in the Brooklyn Museum that houses Stephen Powers' current exhibition, which explores the vibrant painting style characteristic of Coney Island. The gallery is everything you can expect from Powers: melodramatic vernacular; animated objects; and cheeky colours, twisted together to form lighthearted montages. The show itself, however — due to a lack of context and proper curation from Sharon Matt Atkins — falls short of truly honouring Powers' work.
A few months back, Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull) was part of a larger tribute to Coney: there were two other showcases in the museum, one that held photographs from the Island’s past and the other, a slew of work from various artists in various mediums. These galleries have since been removed, and with them, the context for Powers’ — and the rest of the members of ICY Signs, his travelling sign shop — work.
Now the exhibit acts in isolation, and Atkins hasn’t clearly worked out how she should best now present it. The gallery is comprised of four cathedral-like towers of work, surrounded by individual collages. The towers are constructed out of layers upon layers of meticulously placed graphic posters. The work encircling the stacks is constrained on square canvases on stark white (and one yellow) walls, hung sparsely and tidily. Unfortunately for Powers, as is in his Adore collage, careful, grid-like arrangements simply do not work, lacking the texture and tumbling decay that best highlights his style. His collages are meant to be part of a loose environment. Even after Powers abandoned his career as a graffiti artist (he was known under the pseudonym Exterior Surface Painting Outreach or ESPO in the 1990’s), his efforts have typically focused on fully incorporating his work onto the façade of a crumbling brick wall or the paneled side of a parking garage. He employs the surfaces of his “canvases” to bring his work to life.
This is evidenced in one of his most promising pieces, — which is, as is with almost all of the works, untitled, an ironic twist in a signage show — a spirited, quirky collage. Here, Powers has let his knack for juxtaposed imagery and text run wild. Upon closer inspection, you can see the strokes of paint, the outlines in pencil, the scratch marks; this roughness is reminiscent of the textural quality that makes Powers’ style sing.
For someone whose work is characteristically integrated into its environment, Powers’ current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum is unsettling in that it is so far removed from its surroundings. Powers’ work provokes emotion; he jolts and confronts his viewers into states of nostalgia and melancholy. He needs curation that allows for this dynamism to be brought to life; there should be an abundance of texture, an environment, really: bustle, noise, and a cloying, dizzying effect that makes one feel as though too much cotton candy has been eaten, or a Ferris wheel has gone around one too many times. You need the absolute works, if you want your audience to believe in dreamland. If Powers is to be successful within the confines of a gallery or a museum, his pieces should dictate the form of the display, not the other way around. Message to Atkins: Move those first floor pinball machines upstairs, throw some franks on the grill and slather on the ketchup. Let’s get this dreamland going.
Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull) November 20, 2015 — August 21, 2016 The Brooklyn Museum, Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery, Fifth floor 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York 11238-6052