As he navigates the journey into his ninth decade, painter JP Powel is keenly aware that the title of his current exhibition – “Seasons” – resonates with multiple meanings.
Powel’s works on display at the Dartmouth Cultural Centre, primarily but not exclusively landscapes, are a bold celebration of the particular joys of each season: the rebirth and promises of spring, the warmth and passion of summer, the harvest and the overwhelming cold of autumn, and the quiet beauty and loneliness of winter.
Powel recently mentioned that at eighty, he considers every painting could be his last. The seasons of a man’s life weigh heavily in his thoughts. That said, he once shared a few lines by poet WBYeats with me that are worth repeating:
“An old man is a paltry thing
A tattered coat on a stick, unless
The soul claps its hand and sings, and sings louder
For every shred in his mortal robe.
But Powel has stamina and conviction. His paintings sing with a love of life. He is an unabashed adherent to the doctrine of a sensualism, sincerely embracing a philosophy and aesthetic sensibility that asserts that the gratification of the senses is a worthy pursuit.
This sensualism is clearly evident, it’s the sheer delight he takes in his depiction of the natural world, swirling it around in a heady mix of chimerical overtures, lush hues and a subtle dash of mythology.
Take a look at his “Cloud Vortex Over Allen’s Pond”. It might make you think you haven’t been looking up at the sky with the proper sense of awe. Its clouds take on an anthropomorphic form as if Zeus himself was there to make his presence known in anger.
In one of Powel’s winter paintings, eight wild birds, reduced to silhouette forms, descend through a bright orange sunset to land on pale blue ice. It’s called “Geese landing on the frozen swamp”.
It’s a masterful study of color relationships, but it’s much more than that. The sun is setting, a crescent moon is rising, and between them is a white orb, probably Venus. The goddess of love is positioned between Apollo and Artemis.
“Farewell to Summer” depicts a woman squatting to harvest tomatoes and eggplants in a garden. A black hen and her chicks peck on the ground next to a huge gourd, while the murmur of birds swirls in the sky.
Beyond the aforementioned vegetables, the gathering of food is a recurring theme in Powel’s work. In another painting, a woman is in search of chicken of the woods mushrooms. And in another, a woman is picking blueberries. Food, of course, speaks of another kind of sensual gratification, beyond the visual.
In a Powel masterpiece, “Elsa, Blueberries, Kezar Lake”, the name of the shapely berry picker is revealed. Her blonde hair is tied in a ponytail, she wears an indigo one-piece swimsuit, she stands in ankle-deep water with her back to the viewer.
In the distance there are conifers, mountains, a distant cabin, but Elsa herself is an enigma. She is in the landscape but not of it. She is radiant and not quite of this world, as if it were another visit from a goddess. It is a prime example of the sensualist nature of Powel’s work, in which an element of eroticism is quietly evident.
Powel is an old tomcat and I say that with nothing but respect and admiration. There is something liberating and reassuring in knowing that earthly appetites do not always diminish. And that there is nothing wrong with being sensual.
No need to go quietly at night. Now it doesn’t matter the season.
“JP Powel: Seasons” is on display at the Dartmouth Cultural Center, 404 Elm Street, South Dartmouth until June 25.