Interview: Neil Powell

Artist Neil Powell recently opened the show, “Down By The Side Of The Road” at 222 Gallery on July 10th. The exhibition featured a selection of works on paper and sculptures. Powell’s work evokes a whimsical, yet graphic approach—appearing as indexical maps of personal narrative or scatological documentations. His illustrative worlds are littered with idiosyncratic characters, situations and translations. Neil Powell’s show will be up at 222 Gallery until August 1st. 


SL: I read that you grew up on a small pig farm in rural Western Kentucky, which gave you a “singular perspective on the fragility of life, the inevitability of death, the shadow of loneliness….” Can you expand upon this statement? Obviously, pigs play part of the visual language of your work- but do you have any particular experiences, memories or ideas that derive from this unique childhood experience? And how do you think this manifests itself in your work? 


NP: You left out “the ability to castrate a pig.” This was included in my artist statement partly in jest. But, it also speaks to the fragility of life and what ends one might find they have to do to survive. The castration of a living creature is a brutal act, but on a farm it’s a necessary act. Pigs are amazing animals. And, to me, very similar to humans. Their primary focus is to consume. At one moment they can be gentle, loving creatures and the next they can be savage beasts. They are fast learners and will very quickly realize a breach in the fence. They love to roam. And, they know when you put them in a back of a pick-up, it’s not for a joy ride in the countryside. A lot of the imagery in my work is pig-like people. 


I grew up in a very difficult environment. My father is a disabled Vietnam veteran who came back bitter and angry about the war. My mother is the backbone of our family and together they worked very hard to provide for our family. 


SL: I also read that your work “documents the personalities of small town life,”—what would you say the experience of growing up in a small town/rural environment is? Today you live in New York—how do these two locations affect your works aesthetic? 


NP: You’re more isolated and self-sufficient in a rural environment. In the city there are more people working together to survive, to make it work, to progress. On a farm, in the middle of nowhere, it’s just you and the unpredictable whims of Mother Nature. Will a blight or hale storm destroy my crops, will a virus get my livestock, and will the tractor break down. Again, it’s a very fragile life. 


SL: What are some of your other inspirations, whether visual or ideological, musical, etc? 


NP: That’s a hard question because there are so many. But, I’d say music plays a big role in my work. As a kid, my parents were always playing great music. Neil Young, John Prine, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac. Artists who had great lyrics. I’m a music junky. Often while I’m working I here a lyric and think “Wow, that’s how I’m feeling now.” 


SL: Your works display a very idiosyncratic set of symbols, almost in a Basquiat like fashion of recurrent imagery. For example, mathematical equations, numbers, arrows, car references such as roads or terminology, a cast of human-like characters and of course pigs. Do these symbols have particular connotations to you, as with Basquiat? What draws you to repeat these images? Does it form a kind of language to you? 


NP: It’s very much an obsessive form of language and story telling. As I’m working, the characters and symbols are telling me a story. It’s not a story in the traditional sense. Not linear. It’s very abstract with many voices, all of which are talking at once. My mind wanders continuously while working on a piece. Random things like numbers and symbols will come to mind and I document them. I very much like a free flowing stream of consciousness when I’m working. And, often at the end of a piece, I remember conversations and how I was feeling in various areas of a drawing. 


SL: Your drawings in particular have a hard edge , yet very playful design element to them, they almost look retro computer generated graphics—though they are mostly created out of pen on paper. Why did you choose this kind of fundamental, rudimentary tool to create your images? 


NP: There is definitely a folk art influence to my work. I keep it very simple in terms of materials. I’ve always loved the element of handcraft. I remember as a kid my grandfather had this piece of wood with a very simple profile of a man’s face. Under it was a hand-written poem about why it’s important to let a guy have his whiskey every now and then. Now that’s art. I also remember all the hand-painted roadside vegetable stand signs along the road where I grew up. Misspelled words, and odd letter spacing, this aesthetic is so important to me. It’s so real. 


SL: What would you say the overriding look and feel of your work is? What do you hope the viewer experiences from the work? 


NP: There is humility to my work. While I deal with tough issues like poverty, depression, loneliness, there is a certain degree of whimsy there. I don’t think a lot about what the viewer will experience or think I’m trying to communicate. I never start out with a concept in mind. I’ve never been able to pull it off. That has always felt forced. I always just jump in with a big, white, clean sheet of paper and go for a ride. 


Often people will ask me what I’m trying to communicate with my work. My response is always the same¬—everything. 


SL: Where else will you be showing in the upcoming year—where can we see more of your work? 


NP: I’m hoping to do a bigger show after the first of the year with 222 Gallery in the Philly location. New York is my big focus now, so look for me there sometime next year. And, will be live in a few weeks. 


To learn more about Neil Powell, visit: 
222 Gallery

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