Two-person art exhibits can sometimes leave one wondering, “What’s the point?” Other than sharing the same space and time, the artists may have so little in common, they would be better served going solo rather than competing for attention or drawing unfair comparisons.
“and After All of This”, a two person exhibit in the new BFF Gallery, risks that conclusion. At first glance, the expressionistic portraits of artist Jeff King and the layered abstraction of Josh Powell seem to have little in common, certainly not an obvious collaboration.
Despite this, the exhibit gives credence to the axiom, “opposites attract” either in a complimentary or contrasting manner because their differences contribute to a whole, something larger than the sum of their parts. Those differences apply not only to content, genre and medium, but to style and point of view.
It’s what drew each artist to the other’s work initially as they constructed a narrative of sorts that supports and completes the exhibit holistically. Despite their visual contrast, the two artists share and construct an intriguing cautionary tale, past, present and future
Not unlike their individual work, the show evolved characteristically via King’s instinct and spontaneity and Powell’s intuition and deliberation. Originally, the latter planned to fly solo, but said King popped in at a Project Project opening (where Powell and Joel Damon are co-directors) “and simply said, ‘we should show together.’ That was pretty much it. I’ve been in group shows with Jeff but never a duo with just him, and I loved the idea and was honored that he suggested it.
“I was first introduced to Jeff’s work about 22 years ago when I saw a piece of his hanging in a friend’s apartment. I loved his style and have always been a fan of his dramatic brush strokes and distorted subject matter. His work always felt really emotional. I think that’s what drew me to it.”
Conversely, King describes Powell as a “true mixed media artist, and every show I see he is trying to do something differently which I think is cool. Basically, he has a visual range from abstracts to figurative, especially in the collages using imagery he finds, which is particularly interesting based on the arrangement of meaning he’s trying to convey.”
“Cool” can also apply to Powell’s tone and relative detached point of view in sharp contrast to King’s hot-button, in-your-face attitude. And “arrangement” alludes to the formal structure of Powell’s graphic collages, diametrically opposed to the gestural, organic style of King.
Despite their opposite sides of the same gallery, King is quick to add that he too wasn’t looking to create a joint effort, and that the exhibit’s very title is deliberately ambiguous, possibly even dark. “‘and After All of This,’ gives the show a more vague/universal title,” he said. “We didn’t want to collaborate (on any single piece) and each worked separately. “
What they did do was create a balanced narrative on their own terms motivated and bound by similar issues with King looking back in time alongside Powell’s eye on the future; neither treading on the other’s territory yet travelling along a similar and thematically connected psth. The exhibit’s umbrella themes– motivated by a world threatened with pandemics, WWIII and climate change, and closer to home by inflation, social and political divides–are familiar: freedom, personal responsibility and identity.
King’s art here is like a warning shot across the bow; talking heads and text, part slam poetry and philosophy, popping up in iconic street fashion and wisdom as if just discovered while turning a corner. This is King, living and working in the moment but drawing upon history for inspiration as if to say the past is prologue if not downright repetitive.. Most of all, his message isn’t merely academic, it’s personal.
“My end of the show is about what I’ve learned so far in America,” the artist said. “Ranging from what I think is the ill intention of capitalism and leadership on which it’s based, to thinkers who superseded the necessity for more arguments. These paintings, true or false in the eyes of anyone, help me understand the world and myself a little better, though in reality they are just moments in time.”
Perhaps lesson one is the divisiveness King sees in society making it virtually impossible to move forward for the greater good. His portrait of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, titled “Logic in a burning world ” texts “the world is all that is the case” across a furrowed brow and one eye deliberately askew. What the great man disapproves of, and King gets, is the tendency for certain factions to form and act upon opinions based solely in their own bubble as in say, “The Big Lie.”
It’s here that King is least optimistic, at least about living, let alone progressing, in a logical world. “We’re divided because the facts or lack of facts are spun into an opinion. Facts, as I’m guessing you know, are events minus someone’s opinion. In the end, I sorta wish it was a solvable problem, however I don’t feel it’s solvable.”
Yet, equally concerning and confrontational is his monumental portrait of the self-proclaimed Dictator of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar. Titled and texted “Render unto Caesar”, it paraphrases and subverts the familiar Biblical saying, commenting on the forces of power and ambition that would drive a leader into declaring himself dictator for life as Caesar did.
Chiseled in marble, Kings’ Caesar glances skyward, forever looking for new horizons to cross and lands to conquer commenting on future generations of invading oligarchs and super-billionaires whose fortunes are built on the backs of those who are conquered, enslaved and/or brainwashed. It’s no coincidence that history repeats itself and that civilizations crumble from within from wretched excess, corruption and insurmountable cultural divides.
If King’s art is prescient, and it is, then Powell’s this time around is visionary, and like his cohort, his shape of things to come is hardly optimistic.
“This work is similar to my last show at Petshop because it’s image driven, heavily layered, textured, reductive, and then some,” he said. “Everything is the same, construction wise, with my current work, it’s just more driven by the narrative, or the fake story that I tell myself about a world that doesn’t exist…right now.” But it could, and there’s a word for that.
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about rebuilding a wasteland, a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape. I know that sounds sad but honestly, by creating these fake landscapes. Not that I’m wishing for this scenario to happen, because I think that would be such a horrific event.”
Powell modulates the pessimism of these dire scenarios (think recent Ukranian images) with his fine eye for composition, a sophisticated palette and the depth of his imagery to give credence to their message. Titles like “Overcast Bathing At Sea Bunker,”, “Midwest Camp, Nuclear Winter, Not All Made It” and “Telecasting At Redwoods Bunker” speak and show eloquently the aftermath of life on a ravaged and invaded environment, circa WWIII.
Woods are blasted bare, buildings crumble in their own rubble and a hazy gray pallor hangs heavy over the remains of a not-too-distant future. Powell peoples his doom and gloom with singular survivors who appear to be going through the motions of the aftermath. Whether intended or not, these “lucky” few may yet realize that building back better lays in their lone hands. Powell diminishes the probability of such a proposition by giving us only a glimpse of a leg, a half torso or a faceless figure.
Powell’s imagery is so dense it suffocates not only with the detritus of war but the weight of its own futility to solve anything long term. The horror he spoke of earlier, isn’t that of Armegeddon—this is no final battle of good vs. evil, a war to end all wars, or victory of any sort—it’s a judgment on the folly of humanity that fails to learn the lessons of its past and thinks it can pick up where it left off post facto. It’s a vision of change or progress as hopeful as the predictable “Our hopes and prayers are with the families of victims” we here from all corners after a mass shooting.
“A lot of my work has kind of touched on the industrial military complex, so I guess it’s only fitting for me to think about the aftermath,” Powell said. “When the dust settles, there is no country vs country. In this work we are unified as drifters and scavengers. Trying to piece together something, anything familiar. “
This exhibit hardly paints a rosy picture, but neither is it fake. Separate, but on the same “page”, one artist is aggressive, confrontational, another subtle and persuasive, both drawn to a similar outcome. In this cautionary tale, fundamentally rooted in reality, King and Powell give fair warning, then reveal the consequences of choosing to ignore the past, the sign of the times, the handwriting on the wall.
‘and After All of This’ opens Friday, June 3, from 6-9 p.m. in the BFF Gallery 5903 Maple St. in Benson. For details and gallery hours contact firstname.lastname@example.org.