Introductory essay from the catalogue accompanying “Traces & Testament”
The work of Chantal Powell contains one of the key elements of good art in that while it is intensely personal in terms of its creation, it is also open to a range of interpretations by the viewer.
Many contemporary artists seem intent on producing willfully obscure work that is deliberately designed to baffle its audience. Whilst in many respects this is understandable as the artist is perhaps interested in making the viewer take theoretical and aesthetic leaps into the unknown, it often results in work that is inaccessible and impenetrable, leaving the viewer either cold or bemused.
Powell’s work counters this approach, without losing anything in terms of the intelligence and expertise bound up in its planning, research and creation. The work on display in this exhibition demonstrates a consistent approach from the artist, both in terms of the selection of the materials used and the execution of the final piece.
She is an artist that takes the idea of a found object as a starting point, which through careful consideration and the addition of subtle details, she transforms and infuses with an alternative meaning. There is a long-standing tradition of the use of found objects within art – indeed there are several sub-genres of the form.
Arguably the most notorious example of these is the ready-made, which involves the presentation of seemingly banal objects as art. The key work in this vein was The Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp, which consisted of a standard porcelain urinal presented as art. The only addition to the work was a signature by Duchamp using the pseudonym ‘R.Mutt’. Although there is clearly a humorous side to this piece, Duchamp saw the work as an aesthetically provocative act, one that questioned the function of art and the notion of taste.
There are echoes of Duchamp’s work in Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964), which although on first impression appear to be standard cardboard boxes, are in fact handmade replicas of the original. Ready-mades appear to celebrate the banal, yet somehow question the role of an artist. It suggests that there is an inherent arrogance in the artist, as if everyday objects are transformed by the simple act of coming into contact with creative genius.
In contrast, the artist’s ego is clearly the least of Powell’s concerns. Rather than defining the pieces as ‘ready-mades’, her work would be more accurately aligned with the notion of ‘assemblage’, that is the use of non-traditional materials that are assembled to form an artwork. Her working process involves the selection of existing, often vintage objects that she then works on in order to create a new situation.
Before considering the work itself, it is interesting to focus on the found objects that she has selected. Whether utilising cabinets, cigarette cases, embroidery, lockets or commemorative boxes, there is a consistency in the selection of the raw material, both in terms of their quality as objects in their own right but also in relation to her individual artistic aesthetic.
Powell’s visual sensibility embraces a wide range of elements, drawing upon Victoriana, found photography, postcards, illustration and traditional crafts. In terms of artistic influence, it is interesting to consider the work of Joseph Cornell (1903-72). Cornell was a key exponent of assemblage and much of his work is assembled from prints, photographs and objets trouves (found objects). He is best remembered for his series of boxes and cabinets, in which he presents ephemeral elements in juxtaposition.
Much of his work refers to the Victorian fad for collecting and in particular the idea of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, in which the wealthy would present the spoils of their travels from across the world. These cabinets would contain art collections, archeological finds, geological objects, religious artifacts and examples of exotic taxidermy. Cornell was himself influenced by the surrealists, and in particular their juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated objects to create new meaning.
Whilst the cabinets that Cornell produced may have been an influence on her work, Powell demonstrates real versatility in terms of the media that she employs and she is not afraid to branch our into new ways of expressing herself. Examination of her career so far tells us that just as each piece is thoughtfully realised, she also gives careful consideration to the next direction in her work, which is a skill in its own right. To have a consistency of vision is a rare quality in an artist.
Like many established artists (Cornell included), Powell does not come from a traditional art school background, which is clearly of interest. A key influence on her decision to create art was her PhD in Psychology, which focused on commitment and sacrifice in romantic relationships. Whilst a thesis satisfied her curiosity to some extent, its findings led her to think that there could be a visual outlet for her research. In many ways, as a psychologist she is ideally suited to creating work that resonates in the mind.
Many of the themes that she explored in her research clearly inform her work, particularly subjects such as relationships, communication between couples, romantic expression and the mementoes associated with marriage. Works such as Things Left Unsaid (2010), which consists of ring boxes bound with gold thread, point towards the effect of time on a marriage. The fact that boxes have deteriorated could refer to the effect of time on the physical and interpersonal relationships. The effect of the twine is particularly striking, as it suggests there is a reason to keep the boxes closed, perhaps due to secrets that cannot be shared.
The work Untitled (2009), which consists of a cast iron bed replete with peacock feathers, can also be construed as a comment on relationships, although as with much of Powell’s work, the exact nature of the liaison we are considering is left to our imagination.
One interpretation of the work could be that the vivid feathers refer to the excitement of the early stages of romantic love, something that is underpinned by the harder, colder periods that inevitably occur during a marriage or long term relationship. The beauty of this work is that without a full explanation from the artist, the work could also be construed as referring to a forbidden affair or secret liaison.
This is not to suggest that romantic relations are her sole concern. Other pieces that she has produced relate to themes surrounding time, dreams, and memory. A particularly striking work is Fragile (2009), which represents a subtle departure from the main body of her work in that it employs a glass box. In less skilful hands this would be in danger of being perceived as a parody of a museum display, but with the addition of some simple illustrations of birds, Powell gives the viewer a motif that prompts us to consider a range of concepts, including notions of beauty, the idea of safety (both in early life and adulthood) and the idea or myth of, freedom.
Childhood is another area that interests her, both in terms of it being a magical time of life and one that as adults, we often yearn for. The piece Wonderland (2009), for example creates an atmosphere of wonder that children will love, yet adults will identify with, perhaps with an awareness of the passing of time. The ability to create multiple atmospheres and meanings around her work is what lies at the heart of her talent as an artist.
Traces and Testament marks an interesting point in Powell’s career. It presents us with an insight into her work to date, allowing us to trace her confident progression and growing ambition. It also gives us the opportunity to view two recent pieces, Siren (2010) and Remnant (2010), works that suggest a new direction, indicating that she may be moving away from smaller, more intricate works to larger pieces. The opportunity to view these works together confirms that there is a consistency to her aesthetic, which is one that is sophisticated, delicate and heartfelt.