As he navigates the journey into his ninth decade, painter JP Powel is profoundly aware that the title of his current exhibition — “Seasons”— resonates with multiple meanings.
Powel’s displayed works at the Dartmouth Cultural Center, primarily but not exclusively landscapes, are a bold celebration of the particular joys of each season: the rebirth and promises of spring, the swelter and the passion of summer, the harvest and encroaching chill of autumn, and the quiet beauty and solitude of winter.
Powel has recently mentioned that at age eighty, he considers that every painting might be his last. The seasons of a man’s life weigh heavily in his thoughts. That said, he once shared with me a few lines from the poet W.B.Yeats that are worth repeating:
“An aged man is a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hand and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.”
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, earnestly embracing a philosophy and aesthetic sensibility that affirms that the gratification of the senses is a worthy pursuit.
That sensualism is clearly evident is the sheer pleasure he takes in his depiction of the natural world, swirling it into a heady mixture of quixotic overtures, lush hues and a subtle sprinkling of mythology.
Take a look at his “Cloud Vortex Over Allen’s Pond.” It might make one think that you have not been looking at the sky with the proper sense of awe. His clouds take anthropomorphic form as if Zeus himself were there to make his angry presence known.
In one of Powel’s winter paintings, eight wild fowl, reduced to silhouette forms, descend across a vibrant orange sunset to land on pale blue ice. It is called “Geese Landing on Frozen Marsh.”
It is a masterful study of color relationships but it is much more than that. The sun sets, a crescent moon rises, and between them is a white orb, likely Venus. The goddess of love is positioned between Apollo and Artemis.
“Farewell to Summer” depicts a woman squatting to harvest tomatoes and eggplants from a backyard garden. A black hen and her chicks peck on the ground aside a huge squash, while a murmuration of birds swirls through the sky.
Beyond the aforementioned vegetables, the gathering of food is a recurrent theme in Powel’s work. In another painting, a woman is on a quest to find chicken of the woods mushrooms. And in another, a woman plucks blueberries. Food, of course speaks to another kind of sensual gratification, one beyond the visual.
In a Powel masterpiece, “Elsa, Blueberries, Kezar Lake,” the name of the shapely berry picker is revealed. Her blonde hair is in a ponytail, she wears an indigo one-piece bathing suit, she stands in ankle-deep water, her back to the viewer.
In the distance, there are evergreens, mountains, a far-off 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 yet another visitation of 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 mean that with nothing but respect and admiration. There is something both liberating and reassuring in the knowledge that earthy appetites do not always wane. And that there is nothing wrong with being a sensualist.
No need to go quietly into the night. Now matter what the season is.
“JP Powel: Seasons” is on display at the Dartmouth Cultural Center, 404 Elm Street, South Dartmouth until June 25.
This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Art Beat takes in an exhibit of work by painter JP Powel