Just inside the doors of Vermont Community Access Media (VCAM) in Burlington hangs “McDonald’s Erection,” a W. David Powell painting from 1974. In it, a crane hoists a phallic section of the fast-food chain’s iconic golden arches in a landscape of similarly phallic McDonald’s signatures — for example, the domed trash cans. So begins Powell’s sprawling retrospective, “Everything Must Go 2.0,” comprising 120-plus works in three spaces and spanning more than three decades.
Powell chose the exhibition’s title for its mix of high and low allusions: Read one way, it references the ephemerality of life; read another, it reads like a blowout-sale advertisement. This tension between the high- and the lowbrow is a signature of Powell’s work.
The exhibition presents a dizzying variety of works shown throughout VCAM’s offices, the adjacent RETN (Regional Educational Technology Network) office and the narrow corridor between them. Powell, an art professor at SUNY Plattsburgh and part-time Burlington resident, cites artistic influences ranging from graphic artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth to surrealist icon Max Ernst, as well as pop artists Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol. Those influences help situate Powell as an artist unabashedly riffing on art history and its omissions.
Powell could be accused of following Warhol’s and Ruscha’s formulas a little too closely. It’s difficult to say where the references end and his own artistic voice begins. A clue may lie in Powell’s “Manure Spreaders” from 1986. These screen-print and acrylic images of the familiar Vermont farm vehicle echo Warhol’s style — specifically, super-enlarged photographs, screen printing, bright colors and tile-like repetition. Powell’s distinctly nonglamorous rural subject, however, is a far cry from Warhol’s pouting Marilyn Monroes. Is Powell echoing his hero, or sending up the whole artistic establishment? The answer may be in the eye of the beholder.
A provocative section of Powell’s show is devoted to works cross-referencing Jesus and Elvis, which drolly comment on the similarity between cults of religion and celebrity. Two text-based works jumble the words “Jesus” and “Elvis” to play on the familiar religious slogan “Jesus Lives,” while also referencing the perennial conspiracy theories about the supposedly ever-living King of Rock and Roll.
In Powell’s digital works from recent years, the artist exploits technological sleight of hand to mix vintage images in unlikely combinations. In “Welcome to Bugsy’s World,” an engraving of a crustacean-like limb sprouts from what could be a crab shell and an organic mass, culminating in a spoked bike wheel and an ornamental ball. Behind the curious limb, an engraved mountain scene sweeps grandly into the distance. In the upper left foreground, two brightly colored, engraved birds hang upside-down from a branch, while at the lower left, reddish tentacles encircle what could be a seashell.
Powell intends his digital works to comment on what he considers the undelivered promise of a better life through science and technology. In an artist’s statement, he writes, “My work in digital montage does deal with a longing … for a time that never was — a promise that never materialized.” In Powell’s rendering, flywheels, limbs and animals are cobbled together like monuments to that undelivered promise.
Powell’s pop works flirt with controversy and the idea of the artist-provocateur, while his newer digital works confront, with humor and skill, long-held American ideals of progress. But this retrospective seems, ultimately, about the joy and indispensability of making art. Powell writes in his statement about “living in the moment of making,” an apt mission for an artist bent on engaging with a rapidly changing world and finding ways to synthesize that experience.
W. David Powell, “Everything Must Go 2.0,” VCAM Studio/RETN, 208 Flynn Avenue, Suite 2G, Burlington. Through May 31.