After seven years since Stephen Powers’ last solo exhibition in New York, Joshua Liner Gallery is pleased to present A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures. In this new exhibition series, the prolific artist will present a panoramic assemblage of paintings that will occupy the entire breadth of the gallery. A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures will consist of a multitude of enamel on aluminum paintings, ranging from 10-x-8 inches to 8-x-16 feet.
Stephen Powers—well known for public artworks that fuse sign painting, graffiti, word, and image—creates a new form of public art that is collaborative and personal. Since 2009, his Love Letter projects in the United States and abroad have brought his unique visual communication style to new and larger public arenas. Inspired by conversations with community residents, these colorful interventions leave painted text and graphics on buildings, rooftops and bridges, turning blight to light and illuminating communities in six cities on three continents, as of yet.
In Powers’ hometown of Philadelphia, A Love Letter for You, funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, emblazoned 50 walls along the Market-Frankford elevated train line that together formed a love letter, meant for one but with meaning for all. Similar projects followed in 2010 in Syracuse, New York, São Paulo, Brazil, and most recently Vardo, Norway, again incorporating community input and local talent.
Love Letter for Brooklyn takes a different tack by condensing memories from one single Brooklyn native, David Villorente. Villorente’s poetic statements scroll across the façade of the Macy’s garage, floor by floor, in a striking black-and-white vintage font used decades earlier in the utility signs installed throughout the structure. Love Letter for Brooklyn registers powerfully as both public and personal communication. As the artist noted in an “Art Talk” interview with Vice.com, “It’s the people that make the neighborhood and the people are always changing.”
Powers paints daily, what he terms “Metaltations”—small-scale works on 10-x-8 inch metal sheets painted with enamel. These endlessly inventive pieces serve not only as daily diary but also as a laboratory for the graphic treatments that bring such punch and potency to the artist’s larger paintings. Though the typography and bright colors feel almost carnival on first glance, the artist’s pithy statements on the vicissitudes of life, love, and work are surprisingly intimate (“I paid the light bill just to see your face”).
Oftentimes, Powers transposes words in old bromides to achieve the effect of new insight, such as “a word is worth a thousand pictures” for Powers, that one word is ADORE, a word he describes as “being the base element in every great painting ever.” In other Metaltations, his pictograms strive for the immediacy of cave painting, with a much brighter palette. Powers claims no artistic forbears: “If what I did looked like anything else I’d change it,” but acknowledges debts to Jenny Holzer and Chris Johanson. Pop, graffiti, sign painting, and at the center, a loving eye for the human face, all dance together in his work, or as Powers notes, “The paintings closest to my ideal visually represent what’s in my head, a cacophony of wants and needs and hopes and fears and dreams.
Making signs as art, and art as signs, has been a central feature of Powers work since his earliest days writing graffiti in Philadelphia. When he grew out of graffiti and into sign painting, he explains he “saw the strength of starting with the center, working with the businesses, the locals, the legitimate people, and broadcasting out to the periphery, where all my former associates were, in the shadow-land of graffiti.” The graffiti writer turned sign painter began to operate within the art world with the exhibition Street Market at Deitch Projects in New York (1999), and has continued with numerous gallery shows in the United States and abroad, as well as special art-fair presentations, including ESPO Bakery at the Armory Show (2005), Signarama at Miami Art Basel (2007), and at PULSE Miami (2011) with Joshua Liner Gallery.
Born in 1968 and currently based in Manhattan, Powers and his contemporaries came to represent a generation of artists defined by the groundbreaking 2004 exhibition Beautiful Losers. He has conducted such high-profile public art projects as Dreamland Artist Club at Coney Island (Creative Time, 2004), creating some 60 public signs with 40 other artists, as well as mural projects in Dublin and Belfast as a 2007 Fulbright Scholar. In 2008 his project, the Waterboard Thrill Ride, brought worldwide attention back to Coney Island and the inherent cruelty, likened to a carnival freak show, associated with water-boarding. In 2011, the advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather commissioned Powers to install 10 permanent works in the stairwells of its New York corporate headquarters. Powers has also exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (2000), 49th Venice Biennale (2001), the Liverpool Biennial (2002), and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (2007).