An iconic American car sits in the street, surrounded by heavy smoke; the driver stares into the void. “No Turns,” declares a traffic sign. With the white curtain of smoke, the light blue sky, and the dusty yellow traffic light, the colors are as seductive as Eggleston’s, the suspended moment as narratively rich as Crewdson’s, the banal street scene as dramatized as Shore’s. The aestheticization of the American mundane might seem like an exhausted trope, but for Gus Powell, photography is not a solemn pursuit; each photograph is paired with a one-liner that offers another reading of the constructed image. “I don’t think about happiness,” is the line on a letterpress label mounted next the image described above, on view at Sasha Wolf Gallery through February 27.
Powell’s The Lonely Ones is inspired by William Steig’s 1944 book of the same name, in which the young illustrator, a child of Jewish Socialist immigrants, matched his line-drawn archetypal American characters – dressed as natives, explorers, and imperialists – with text. “Who are all these others?” is paired with a drawing of a Native American anxiously grabbing on to a tiny tree. While exploring the human condition, the book addressed the politics of national identity with Steig’s trademark wry, dark humor.
The pairs in Powell’s The Lonely Ones also explore both universal themes and American-ness. A typewriter inside a plastic bag, left on a sidewalk, is labeled “I could have been an entrepreneur.” The angst is unbounded by geography and time, but the photographs’ absurdity is deeply American. A dozen identical beach chairs are spread on a sandy heap surrounded by trees, and the title reads, “We are here to make you happy.”
Most significantly, through his rich pairings Powell’s images become as playful as Steig’s illustrations. Three individuals dressed in black release an alarming red smoke onto a golden beach; the sky is pale blue, the vast sea turquoise. The colors attract while the image haunts, leaving us to wonder what is happening. But the title breaks the tension – one typed word on a small piece of paper: “Yes.” One can almost hear Powell’s carefree laughter.