2013 MFA Thesis Exhibition Series: Michael Powell

The narrative structure of this video work flows almost directly from experiences I have had in and of the world, whether that be in front of a painting or flying over the Pacific. As an artist, I am deeply invested in the notion that object, body, image and landscape, all function as markers, or containers of multiplicity, of possibility.  At its core, my work has always been about creating opportunities for the exploration of that condition.  The works are structured so as to operate as memory engines of sorts, which self-reflexively return to their own fictionalized and constructed sites. The interactions between narrative, context, time, and image renegotiate the relationship between evolving histories and memories. What constitutes shared experience when our own subjective, projective vision constantly changes the world each of us sees and hears?

 I had wrestled for a long time with how to describe the experience I have in front of works of art. Then, in 2010, I visited the UCLA Hammer Museum, which was exhibiting Eva Hesse’s Spectres—gestural paintings of women that the artist created in her mid twenties. Hesse, who was an accomplished sculptor, is not necessarily celebrated for this series of early paintings in particular. They have, in fact, rarely been exhibited together. I was walking through the exhibition, uncommitted, before stopping in front of one of the works rather suddenly. I looked at the painting and immediately everything changed.

The feeling is as vivid for me now as it was then. It was a physical urge, pure desire, but not lust—more like the attraction of magnets. I desperately wanted to get as close as possible to the painting, to merge with it, to consume it and be consumed by it. Yet I could not, which was a painful realization. There was a distance, both conceptually and physically between my body and the painted surface. I am less interested in the painting now than in the feeling of loss, of frustrated yearning that I think I have felt all my life in the face of great art. For me, it has always been about this unbridgeable perceptual divide. There is a break, between what I want and what I know, or can know. Simultaneously, the experience of that gap adds to what I want to know.

A year later, my father recounted a story to me, which had been told to him in turn by an Admiral as they were landing on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Pacific. He told me that when fighter pilots train to land on aircraft carriers, they practice by aiming at the outline of an aircraft carrier painted on a landing strip. They land on the image of the carrier until they don’t miss, and then they fly out above the ocean to attempt the landing for real. I imagine that it must be quite a sensation, flying out over the Pacific, seeing a dark dot appear on the horizon, small at first but rapidly coming into focus, initially abstract and then suddenly tangible and solid against the water. The Admiral added that even for an experienced pilot on the approach, the carrier looks too small, too precarious, not at all like that image on the runway. In fact, some pilots turn back. I wondered, when fighter pilots successfully land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, is it because they see the carrier, take a deep breath and land on its deck? Or do they see the white outline on the runway in the California desert, and fly towards the painted image, pitching in the waves?

The airplane seemed to be going faster as it neared the ground. But it was slowing down. And with a rush, just as the airplane made contact with the tarmacked deck in my mind, I reached back into my memory for Hesse’s painted woman and it all connected. I felt the distance between the skin-like painted surface and myself; I saw the desert image floating on top of the California waves. I realized that my experience of the world—of memories, of bodies and of images in the world—had always been predicated on a certain type of projective visual experience.

By Michael Powell (May 17, 2013)

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One response to “2013 MFA Thesis Exhibition Series: Michael Powell

  1. I love how you describe wanting to merge with a Hesse painting. (I think it humorous that you added you didn’t feel lust.) I appreciate your writing from your personal experiences. Have you looked into shamanic practices and/or Tibetan meditation teachings? Best wishes for your creativity. Kristi

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