Stephen Powers, known for his witty and touching artworks fusing sign painting and graffiti, word and image, shows A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures at the Joshua Liner Gallery in New York.
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After painting dilapidated gates and buildings under the name ESPO in Philidelphia, Stephen Powers moved into the art world with the intention of “working from the centre”, broadcasting outwards to the “shadowlands of graffiti”. Standing out with his collaborative 2004 exhibition Beautiful Losers, Powers continued to create attention-grabbing public art, from his touching Love Letter projects in Philadelphia and Brooklyn to his Dreamland Artist Club at Coney Island, where he worked with 40 other artists to create 60 public signs. In his new exhibition at the Joshua Liner Gallery in New York, Powers shows us A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures. The word in this instance is ‘ADORE’, which he believes is “the base element in every great painting ever”. Powers explores it through a multitude of enamel on aluminium paintings, ranging from 10 x 8 inches to 10 x 10 feet. His daily ‘Metaltations’, colourful and pithy works on 10 x 8 inch metal sheets painted with enamel, work as an open diary, with intimate statements (“I paid the light bill just to see your face”) displayed in potently coloured bold typography. Here, the artist talks sign painting, art as prayer and graffiti ‘bums’.
How would compare displaying your enamel on aluminium paintings in a gallery setting with your public pieces, such as Love Letter for Brooklyn? It’s all words and emotion, I strive for sincerity and verity in everything I do. Inside or out, upside or down. It’s really just the difference between using my inside voice and my outside voice.
You paint your ‘Metaltations’ daily; do you do them at the same time everyday? Is the daily deadline tough? The daily deadline isn’t so hard, you just have to get ahead and stay ahead. I paint whenever there’s nothing else to do, and that tends to be later in the day, after naptime.
With the ‘Metaltations’ being so intimate, how do you choose which to display? Do you have favourites? I love the ones that make me laugh and wince at the same time. True because it is funny and funny because it is true.
What’s your attraction to the word ‘ADORE’? I like the definition of Adore that means “to pray.” For me, work is prayer. I paint with a reverence and solemnity, even when I’m painting jokes. I also see adore as the base element in every great painting ever made. Every great artwork starts and ends with adoration. So, we are making a painting with the word adore. When it’s completed, the picture will be composed of one thousand words. It will be too big to fit in Joshua Liner’s gallery, but we’ll squeeze in as much as we can.
Living in Manhattan you must see work from up and coming street artists; do you have your eye on any newcomers in particular? No they are all bums. Most Street art isn’t art and it isn’t street. That said my favourite artists put art on the street. There’s a duo in Copenhagen named EB Itso and ADAMS that are the best I’ve ever seen.
In your ESPO days you targeted shops that appeared to be out of business and grates that were already heavily vandalised and described it as a public service, do you feel your work still acts in this way? I like going where the blight is, wherever it is. That’s been a constant since 1984. I like making a place better with my markings. Sometimes all you need to improve a situation is a can of flat black spray paint.
After the 2008 ‘Waterboard Thrill Ride’ project, do you think you’ll do more politically motivated work? If I find a way to make political work that is funny and serious at once, I’ll do it. Otherwise, the other Stephen Colbert is doing just fine.
You have a studio you share with several other sign painters; do you feel a resurgence in sign painting happening in New York at the moment? This month, in addition to the four sign mechanics I have on staff, I have the honour of hosting Justin Green from Cincinnati and Sean Barton from Seattle, so we’re seven sign painters cranking at once. I think we may be the biggest sign shop since Big Apple Signs was spilling paint in Times Square in the 80s.
What does your studio look like? Like C-Town with A-Tier art!
Do you have a kind of ‘art tool kit’ that you carry with you everywhere? I carry a writing implement and a folded sheet of white paper everywhere I go to record data. Drawing is where it all starts. Really one of the most beautiful words too.
A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures by Stephen Powers runs from 6th-29th September at Joshua Liner Gallery, New York.
Text: Alice Louise Wadsworth