For those familiar with her work, this latest exhibit comes as no surprise. Complex and full of depth, the artwork is as historical as it is relevant. On display at New York’s oldest art gallery, the exhibit explores one of the world’s oldest questions–what is power and who controls it? But portraitist Margaret Bowland offers no easy answers. Instead, she presents visual narratives of everyday individuals living, breathing and surviving in a power-hungry world. Comparing and contrasting canonical images with contemporary representations, Bowland shines a light on the allure of power and the dangers of wealth. Spellbinding, psychological and social, “Power” uses art to initiate conversation about the hard truths that have and continue to influence our culture, our lives and ultimately, the way we see the world.
“The idea behind ‘Power,’ for me, is that people don’t know what it is,” Bowland states in a video about her exhibit at the Driscoll Babcock Galleries. “They’re born into a maelstrom of powers that they’ve let affect their lives,” she continues as she describes the dangers of assuming power and wealth as synonymous. Ready or not, viewers are thrust into these kinds of conversations as they walk through the exhibit, coming face to face with Bowland’s installation artwork. Blurring the lines between risk and allure, desire and danger, the artist’s first major installation is comprised of actual dollar bills folded into origami-like roses. The piece is titled “The Watchers,” and is on display throughout the exhibit. The monetary flowers are attached to barbed wire which is twisted up and down the walls and ceilings of rooms in the gallery. As she invites participants to question notions of power, Bowland simultaneously reminds them that money–one of the most powerful forces in the world–never stops watching them. The danger of falling for the lure of wealth over humanity is always eminent. Aside from admiring the beauty of her work, Bowland hopes viewers recognize that at the end of the day, the color of money trumps the colors of race and classism. Beyond her installation art, however, Bowland’s controversial art is on display which includes eight new pieces.
Though new, the works of art have a familiar face for those that have encountered Bowland’s artwork before–Janasia Smith, affectionately known as “J,” a 12-year-old girl that has been Bowland’s muse for years.
In “Dust Up,” the young girl is adorned in a Victorian style dress and wig. The white paint that covers her face, which is common in Bowland’s art, reiterates the long tradition of status, power and money. But this of course, is not what gives “J,” power. According to Bowland, “J’s” power, along with everyone’s else power, is that despite the ornamentation and makeup, “J” remains her unique self–a young African American girl with plaited hair and toys strewn across the floor. Even in the midst of a Victorian, historical, money-hungry painted background, “J” remains herself even if history has altered the shape of her life. For Bowland, that is power. Another popular painting on display at the event is “Tangled Up in Blue.”
“I never had a male story to tell until I met Dexter,” Bowland explains in the video. In the portrait a father and his young son are both dressed in suits. Their Park Avenue apartment, decorated with gold lines and crown molding, once again, depict wealth, status and power. The father, though, is drenched in blue paint, his hands dirtied by life experiences, while his son remains untouched. Based on Bowland’s own encounters with a man named Dexter, the portrait illustrates the power of fatherhood and parenthood in general, which is not only heroic, but an everyday expression of the power of ordinary people.
Margaret Bowland’s paintings are meditations that invite viewers to consider the way the world works at large. The exhibition, lasting from October 29 to December 12, offers up alternative illustrations of power. The Driscoll Babcock Galleries has partnered with Margaret Bowland to remind the world that individuals, despite being part of a world riddled and bogged down by unjust histories, shaky foundations, biases, money and greed, are capable of immense amounts of power because the will to survive each and every day is not only an individual’s own power, but is the strength of society at large: to persist, persevere and move on whether life is a breeze or a storm.