James Powditch


Imagining James Powditch at work in his Annandale studio, I question whether an artist who dismembers yellowed paperbacks is destroying the books or giving them new life. This is not a dilemma for Powditch as he roams secondhand bookshops for old Penguins and Pelicans. They are cheap and plentiful. For years he has used their pages as background material for his pop-culture collages and constructions; without further treatment they give his works a physical patina and a psychological subtext.

In Adaptation: new work from novel and screen, the books are the subject. The Gen-X artist expresses nostalgia for modern classics, though his playful, vibrant treatments bring them right into the graffitied, sampled, ironic present. His ideal aesthetic, he says, is from the 1960s. Many are books (and a couple of plays) that he studied at school; some he knows only from the film version. As a boy he slipped into R-rated horror films and his film-making ambition led to set building and prop making. These passions and skills are all on display.

Powditch has gone back to the sources, mining for personal metaphors to add to familiar symbols from book jackets, movie posters and collective memory. There is a cryptic element to his puzzles for those who want to look beyond the attractive surfaces.

For the smaller works he used a black oil-paint pen to apply bold cartoon images to the grid of pages. The smashed-up car spewing “Stella” (Artois) labels for A Streetcar Named Desire is taken from a Cuban poster for Spielberg’s Duel and makes a stuttering comment on brute, inarticulate men. Walt Disney’s Jiminy Cricket seems a literal, if comic, rendering of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust until you know that the 1939 novel is about a group of Hollywood wannabes. A Playboy bunny in Heart of Darkness? Yessir, Coppola’s film adaptation, Apocalypse Now, came out while the teenage Powditch was reading Conrad’s novel and – no surprise – his most powerful memory was of the Playmates helicoptered into Vietnam to entertain the US troops.   

At the centre of the show is the 4.8 by 2-metre Papillon (Weathermakers). The prisoner’s tattoo from the French bestseller has become a huge pixillated butterfly, made up of colour-coordinated paint and postage stamps against a background of science books. The book-film-art metamorphosis takes place before our eyes; brutality blurs into fragile beauty, with a subtle environmental warning.

The bigger works sharpen and grow in impact as you step back from them. But don’t ignore the carefully chosen detail. A compulsive collector and recycler, Powditch applies strips of stamps with both decorative and topical purpose. To Kill a Mockingbird combines the bird image from a poster for Woodstock with stamps celebrating the American Bar Association in 1953. Justice, racial politics, the ’70s peace movement…the connections gradually and brilliantly click into place.

Some pieces have a serene, or even severe, simplicity: a white cross for Black Robe; white slatted blinds slicing through blue-swirled linoleum for Jaws; a sinister bird-like Rorschach blot on canvas-cum-bandages for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; angular panels and architect’s rulers for Fountainhead IV.

Mostly Powditch’s instinct is to crowd in ideas and materials, textures and colours, lines and angles. Yet he always knows when to stop. The busiest works are the ones I spend most time with, marvelling at their ingenuity, laughing at their jokes, sneaking a touch.

The Godfather uses old records, photos and a nicely grained cupboard door as confessional. The matching door shows up in Where the Wild Things Are, the children’s fantasy-nightmare about a boy’s imagined animal kingdom, along with street posters for a band called Grizzly Bear, wild-eyed teddy bears on cardboard boxes and a floral curtain. Maurice Sendak’s picture book became even lusher as Spike Jonze’s recent film but Powditch pares it back to these slightly unnerving rejects from the adult world.

Children as not-quite-innocents? Try the murky painted panels, soft-drink labels and sharpened pencils of Lolita (no sexual images needed), or the blackboard drawings of  Porky Pig mixed with a hockey stick, squash racket, model plane, lemonade labels, lots more rulers and a children’s stamp from 1956 with the motto “Friendship is the key to world peace” in - what else? - Lord of the Flies II. Look closely and you’ll notice “Fort Street Boys’ High School” stamped across a page of text.

“Reading” James Powditch’s assemblages takes us into the subconscious of the artist    
and the sedimentary layers of our shared past. Some of us will be tempted to stand up close and read the pages; the effort is not wasted as they are chosen for dramatic impact. Many of us will be urged back to the books or at least to the DVDs. This and the endlessly replaying pleasure of the works themselves declare Powditch a booklover. Rescued from Gould’s book limbo these brittle paperbacks sing. 

Is the printed book reduced to an artefact in the digital age? Not yet. But even if our grandchildren do not turn pages as we do, words, ideas and images are resilient and can leap from medium to medium. Perhaps the moral heart of this show is Fahrenheit 451, an ambiguous image of the Statue of Liberty holding her torch aloft. Two sets of postage stamps colour in the spaces: one commemorates the 500th anniversary of the first printed book, the Holy Bible; the other is for the 300th anniversary of the New York Fire Brigade. Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, if you recall, imagined a future – about now - ruled by mass media and censorship in which reading is outlawed, books are burnt and readers must die. Powditch politely warns us not to play with fire.

Susan Wyndham
Literary Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald


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