31 Jo Powers


Born Detroit 1951/BFA Wayne State University; MFA Syracuse University, NY/Lives Royal Oak, Michigan

Soundlessly, without stirring a ripple, a woman glides into view in Jo Powers’ Lake, the painter’s haunting self-portrait of 1993. Garbed in pink and borne on a watery expanse of azure, she drifts, Ophelia-like, calm, composed, and with eyes wide open, all-seeing. Albeit “at sea” in life’s journey, this “swimmer” ruminates on her present, pressured state of mind, rebooting as she floats along. Several arresting self-portraits, in similarly tiny oil-on-wood format—Lake is a mere 6 x 6 in.—punctuate Powers’ three decades-long career. Her spare, sometimes austere compositions, petite scale, low-key color, suppressed emotion, and painterly facture, offset by startling scenarios, is the raw material of a consummate pictorialist. Painter, illustrator, and art faculty at Macomb and Oakland Community Colleges, Powers has participated in numerous group and solo shows, her images uniformly described as “mysterious and powerful.”

Indeed, Powers’ themes and scenes of resilience, agitation, turmoil, soul searching, stoicism (and sporadic celebration) reverberate with universal ramifications. In a series of “museum pictures,” including Pandora (1994) and Museum Dance (1996), for instance, the stultifying presence of old art, embodied by nineteenth century white marble sculptures, provoked several encounters of human and marmoreal figures set amidst the galleries of the Detroit Institute of Arts. In the former, a slim female leg, shod in a ballet flat, thrusts in from the right to topple a chiton clad statue depicting “Pandora’s Box,” while in the latter, a male visitor/artist is caught in a spirited dance, the gyrations of which the crouching marble figure is completely oblivious to. In this episode, the inflamed red of the wall is strikingly complemented by the green-attired dancer unleashing his id just around the corner and out of sight of the ivory hued effigy in the background.

Dance, frenzied or decorous, is a recurring motif in Powers’ images, either of solitary hoofers or more rarely, of a group, a subject prompted in part by collaborative ventures she undertook with the Detroit Dance Collective in the 90s. Man Dance (2007) highlights a fully realized example of such scenes, rendered in comparatively large scale at 13 x 21 in. In a warm, harmonious palette and indeterminate space, eight men of divers ages and modes of dress—apparently unaware of us observing their gambol—are caught up in singularly individual dance steps. The middle aged couple at the right, familiar with one another’s body language, dance sedately, while the younger pair at the left, albeit partners, turn and twist to their individual drummers. The man in front, his back turned to his companion, seems about to execute an improvised move that will shatter the shapely oval formed by the group. Indeed, the lusty camaraderie of this rhythmic ensemble, even absent a sound track, is positively palpable.

In Powers’ universe, threats to one’s equilibrium, however, are never far from home, originating as they do from the streets or precincts of one’s neighborhood. In Street Scene (1998), a sidewalk skirmish has erupted in front of a bridal salon as two men grapple with one another. And then there are the boars (!) that incongruously roam through Powers’ scenes whether in solitude, as in Car Wash (2013), or in clusters, from as early as 1996. Fascinated by their sleek, bullet-like bodies rather than their reputed aggressiveness, she renders her boars as unsettling, blurred presences lurking about, or here as a loner trotting past an empty, acidic green carwash in the middle of the night. More recently, as construction sites have metastasized across the city, hulking, heavy-duty vehicles have begun to populate Powers’ image bank. The steam shovel in 2014’s Neighborhood, with its pulsing, rosy-hued cab and dinosaurian armature attests to the invasive nature of these mechanized beasts

Yet the dance of life insistently bursts forth as in 2011’s Highway Dance, where, in a muted grisaille palette, a suit—cuff links conspicuously visible—shouts, swings and sways as fast as he can in front of the looming cab of a massive eighteen-wheeler. Is the truck parked or bearing down; is the “Watusi” dancer venting frustration, recklessly oblivious, savoring a victory, defying an incarnation of brute force, in an echo of David vs. Goliath? Thus is the scope of Powers’ self-defined “narrative realism,” a rather terse phrase for an oeuvre of charged, intimate panel paintings—small but roomy—imbued with the scale, scope, and yes, mystery of actual life.

Copyright 2015 Essay’d

Dennis Alan Nawrocki, September 2015