Peter & Madeline Powell’s Photorealistic Paintings Sift through Piles and Piles of Toys and Candy

Artists who work together describe their partnerships in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s a collaboration; other times it’s a collective. In the case of Peter & Madeline Powell, who happen to be husband and wife, it’s a “creative alliance.”

That alliance intertwines the talents of two individual artists. However, as the Powells are quick to point out, their creative process isn’t about dividing and conquering: They work together every step of the way. In “All Piled Up,” their new show at Scott Richards Contemporary Art in San Francisco, that means coming up with a concept—in this case, photorealistic paintings of objects like candy or toys—assembling the objects in real life, photographing them, then using the photographs as references for highly detailed, close-up paintings of the assemblages.

But just which of the two artists, you might wonder, has mastered these precise brushstrokes to so perfectly capture the glossy plastic of a Pez dispenser in Superhero Pez Pile (2016), the rough texture of yarn on Raggedy Andy’s head in Guys Night Out (2016), or the reflection of overhead light on a glass bottle in Hot Stuff (2016)? They both do.

The Powells share a specific technique and a Pop Art sensibility. There’s something Warhol-esque about many of these works, especially ones featuring familiar commercial brands, as in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (2012).

Based on the show’s subject matter—action figures, dolls, bottle caps, candy bars, squirt guns—the couple also seem to share a certain nostalgia for the color and whimsy of childhood. But there’s a critical element to many of these paintings. Choose Your Weapon (2016), for instance, renders dozens of guns—a symbol of human violence—in cheery plastic. Likewise, it’s difficult to avoid thoughts of the growing obesity epidemic when viewing copious amounts of candy in Sugar Rush (2015).

Indeed, the densely packed piles exude both innocence and excess. At first, the eye-catching paintings are delightful to view, but the longer you look—imagining all that sugar, all that plastic, all the packaging and the inevitable trash and waste—the sicker you might feel.


—Bridget Gleeson


Peter & Madeline Powell: All Piled Up” is on view at Scott Richards Contemporary Art, San Francisco, Jun. 2–Jul. 2, 2016.

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