Transmutations: Exhibition Catalogue
The seeds for a solo exhibition of an artist’s work are planted long before the day of the opening reception. Often a gallery owner and an artist will work together on different levels for years before a date can be set. This may seem exaggerated in our so-called globalized world where technological exponents lead us to believe that anything is possible within a relatively short period of time. However, even the use of the most sophisticated computerized system, rigged with scanners, cameras and more, does not provide the crucial imagery that is needed to develop insight and understanding of an artist’s work.
The mutual decision to host an exhibition of Peter Powning’s work was not made via e-mails and the viewing of j-pegs on a computer screen but during our initial visit to his studio in Markhamville, New Brunswick. We, the gallery owners, were invited into the artist’s world and for a short while enjoyed the privilege of becoming part of his place.
Artists work everywhere. Their studios are in attics, old warehouses, in their homes, in sheds and in Peter Powning’s case, in a group of buildings set behind his rural home. Peter Powning’s intimate sense of place cannot be underestimated. It is here that he explores and then creates. His place provides him with the greatest factor of certainty and it is here that Powning can push to the outer limits of possibility without blowing a fuse.
Powning works intensely with his materials, primarily bronze, steel, glass and stone. He is a gatherer. He collects and keeps and integrates. His process is that of a sculptor. He moves freely from one dimension to another, incorporating multiple elements into his objects in order to add layers and dimensions to the finished work. These disparate parts combined become a whole, an independent work of art.
An old rubber tire, almost a perfect half circle in itself is duplicated in bronze. The two elements are positioned together and collaborate, both composing the arch that Powning so often uses in his sculptural works. The sculpture is complete. It is an independent unity and formally stands for itself. The artist has incorporated the different elements into his world, into his place, and ultimately has set them free.
Not surprisingly, Peter Powning arrived at the title Transmutations while finalizing the series intended for this exhibit. The term “transmutation” belongs to the world of alchemy. It is the assumption that common materials, such as lead and bronze, would in time turn to gold. Powning cleverly insinuates the reversal of materials and suggests that the more valuable mineral takes on the characteristics of its lesser cousin. It is play with history; a play with given values.
Peter Powning is the winner of several prestigious prizes including the Saidye Bronfman Award and the Sheila Hugh Mackay Foundation’s annual Strathbutler Award. He holds a distinct and eminent position among Canadian artists and is very much part of the arts community in New Brunswick. His work stands for his commitment, for the artist’s order, a human culture and the necessary power of exploration and creativity.
We are very much indebted to Peter Powning for giving us the privilege of exhibiting his wonderful and intriguing works of art. We thank him for the opportunity of working together on this project. We are indebted to him for his time and for the faith he has shown in us. We hope this publication opens a window on Peter Powning’s work to many people.
Although originally based in craft, his practice engages sculpture as its central preoccupation. The artist builds from the elements available to him with an eye toward resultant forms. His methodology is overt; his process is laid bare. Powning intricately understands his materials, the combinations of substances needed to produce content, texture, and form. Different contexts determine outcome, particularly evident with work intended to be situated outdoors.
Says Powning of his process, “I set up conditions for the accidental to shape both the process and the outcome, a sort of evolution by mutation. I work with the results of accident as part of both the physical and metaphorical process. The other sort of ‘accident’ I deal with is inadvertent breakage. I try to incorporate this kind of accident in the work, although there are times that this isn’t possible, in which case the bits and pieces can insinuate their way into new work at some later time. In fact, for some time I have been deliberately breaking parts of sculptures to provide pieces of the whole to transform into other materials (by casting ceramic or glass shards in bronze) and then reassembling them as a renewed whole. I like the metaphorical resonance of transformation, the broken reunited, made whole but altered.”
Aesthetic satisfaction comes from the alternate revealing and concealing of the materials in the works. Powning does not encode but, rather, exposes the symbolic nature of art and language while employing material and message in mutual reinforcement. He plays with the capabilities of available media, manipulating them to points that would seem “unnatural.” Substances take on the qualities of other seemingly disparate materials, and opposites exist in tandem. Stone becomes wood-like, glass seems like water.
A recent group of works portray books under a series of unusual conditions. Some have been immersed in water. Many of the books are suspended in the ocean just beyond breaking surf while the artist chases them, shooting them as they are animated by currents. Other books are portrayed in mid-flight, thrown by the artist. All have become illegible.
Books are carriers of words, the method by which we communicate thoughts and ideas with symbols understandable to the reader. By removing this function, Powning asks us to consider not what the books convey literally, but what they are in themselves. They become sculptural objects. The photographs which we see are documentary records of a process that is utterly transitory.
Other series of works acknowledge the heritage of craft to extract ghosts of tradition past – the plinth, the reliquary, the ornament – with a view to carrying on in this lineage while subjecting it to transformative effects. By once again moving beyond utility, Powning digs through the strata of what has come before to discuss the processes of memory and forgetting, of history as patina.
Powning describes his work as “metaphorical and allusive, but in loose felt ways, rather than by use of conscious specific literal references. I’m usually seeking qualities of antiquity and mystery, something unmoored from time and place. I strive for work that projects a feeling of obscure provenance and yet evokes feelings of deep recognition and connection.”
On the one hand, his work resonates between the lines of narrative that, though steeped in history, nevertheless proves to be centered on a projection of humanness, on its universal desire for immortality through the objects it produces.
On the other, it describes a continual recreation of meaning and, therefore, function. The objects are destined to be once again re-written in the present, in the moment of our encounter.
My use of cryptic glyphs is an attempt to engender a sense of inherent meaning, meaning that is visually contextual but perhaps beyond the capacity of text (words) to convey. It is also an exploration of the power of lost languages as represented by obscure human artifacts unearthed from a time beyond cultural memory. It might also represent the murky evanescent text of dreams, that kind of dream reading in which the text is visible but the words and meaning dissolve and distort when examined; and yet still have power.
I attempt to create a sense of being at the threshold of meaning, a place where you have to accept the experience as the meaning, and relinquish the need to explain. The direct experience of the object is sufficient, more than sufficient. The experience is the point. Explanation and analysis diminish or confuse the reality of the moment and become something else, their own reality, not the reality of the experience. The on-going experience of the physical presence of things deepens our awareness of seeing, just seeing, without the filters and intellectual garnish that analysis encumbers us with.
Analysis and historical contextualization have their place, but to my mind, not as a substitute for a direct engagement with art. There’s a big difference between watching a bird in flight … just watching… as opposed to analyzing as you watch – thinking about “bird flying”, where it’s going, flight mechanics, its species, what it eats, etc. Those are different experiences. Direct, unmediated experience is what interests me most. A flood of associations and other thoughts soon enough invade the experience; alter it, and inform it. Associations are made, and the whole web of analysis of one kind or another takes over. I aim for objects that are curious enough to evade immediate classification, not as puzzles, but mysterious, with a presence of their own that engage the viewer directly.
This is what it seems like I’m up to. The process of making art isn’t this clear to me as it’s happening. It happens in a state of “attentive inattention,” as the poet Gary Snyder put it. There’s a kernel of an idea as a starting point; the rest of the process develops its own logic. The glyphs or unreadable script are only one aspect of each piece. The form of the objects is yet another realm to consider.
I’m also grappling with transmutation in my work – the act or state of being changed from one form into another, for example, the book from a familiar common object, to something other. The transformation of objects or fragments of objects into different materials: wood to bronze, bronze to acrylic, glass to bronze. Fragments of objects that are reconstructed in the original form but altered in the process. This process is rich ground for metaphorical exploration. While this is a personal journey for me as an artist, my hope is that this work provides others with the chance for a journey of their own.