Review of solo exhibition on "Two Coats of Paint"


Nancy Powhida: At home in another world

Nancy Powhida, Menagerie, 1987, graphite on paper, 39.5 x 75 inches

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson 

Nancy Powhida, age 80, has just had her first solo exhibition in New York, curated by Kristen Jensen at Essex Flowers. Titled a deceptively straightforward “Oh Dear! Our Life was Like a Horror Show! (No Wonder You Had to Learn to be Resourceful),” the show comprised six graphite drawings and one oil painting, each piece an unnervingly moving revelation.

Nancy Powhida, Dread, 1987, graphite on paper 23 x 23 inches

Powhida’s signature device is to lightly anthropomorphize and activate dolls, stuffed animals, and pets, and cast them alongside real people, with no telegraphed distinction, in the drama of her interior life. Some drawings superficially involve routine play – a child, as one would, commiserates with a doll or converses with a teddy bear – but in Jensen’s deft arrangement these tableaux segued to eerier things: a vaguely baleful dog in a trench coat standing over a stricken girl (or doll); a small boy sitting on a couch next to a headless seamstress’s mannequin flanked by one small dog and one preternaturally big one; a crowded domestic room of humans seamlessly interspersed with animals. Alice in Wonderland meets American Gothic.

Nancy Powhida, Motherhood, 1987, graphite on paper, 28.25 x 40.75

There is nothing cloyingly precious or whimsical about this stratagem: it is not an aesthetic shtick but rather a hard-nosed means of coping, the dolls and animals as serious as a heart attack. The drawings, in turn, are titled with single, richly connotative words: Warmth, Confrontation, Concerns, Dread, Motherhood, and, perhaps inevitably, Menagerie. Powhida made the work when she was in her forties, contending with life as a practicing social worker and a single mother of two teenage boys – one of them the noted artist William Powhida, who has chronicled the social and political travails of the twenty-first century with a kindred brand of acerbic wit. Her drawings feature thick, compulsive black strokes, abundantly shadowed. These qualities, with the pictures’ sweetly warped content, lend them a haunted yet grounded vibe — Maurice Sendak moving towards Max Beckmann.

Nancy Powhida, The Family, 1988, oil on canvas, 45 x 54 inches

Powhida seems at home in another world, vitally linked to the real one, in which subtext cannot stay buried and earthly boundaries fall away. She still struggles for primacy as the adult human in the room: the painting, called The Family, depicts an enthroned woman surrounded by children and animals, none overtly predatory but none unambiguously benign, either. The deep, gritty, not uncheerful paint may intimate her acceptance of that tension and her station. Her proclivity is to depict dourly outré social scenarios that conjure the proximity of domesticity to strife. Like Beckmann, she subdues comfortable preconceptions in favor of honest and sometimes painful emotional assessments, employing gently jarring images that burrow and nestle in the mind. What emerges from her solemn zoo is a portrait of offbeat humanism, quiet bravery, and enduring love, improbably articulated and thus all the more extraordinary.

Nancy Powhida: Oh Dear! Our Life was Like a Horror Show! (No Wonder You Had to Learn to be Resourceful),” Essex Flowers, 19 Monroe Street, New York, NY. May 27 – June 25, 2023.