‘Metamorphoses’. – Jan Powell and Dwyer McKerr

The Engine Room Gallery

7th March 2019  – 30th March 2019


‘Metamorphoses’ at the Engine Room Gallery is a joint exhibition by artists Jan Powell and Dwyer McKerr that takes its title and its theme from the book length poem by Ovid.

Although the two artists intend us to view the exhibition as a shared effort, their individual approaches to the theme are markedly different. Oversimplifying (and it is definitely an oversimplification) Powell’s approach is that of a draughtswoman and McKerr’s is that of a painter, (although it is evident that both artists are well versed in either role).

Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is, as its title suggests, a book of changes, and for me bears some comparison with that other book of changes, the ‘I Ching’.  Of course, Ovid’s book takes a narrative form. It consists of tales of human frailty and folly, and stories of gods and supernatural beings who are themselves flawed and all too human, whereas the I Ching grows outwards from an abstract core and is, via the various commentaries, interpreted into universal human situations, and can be applied, via the use of the yarrow stalk oracle, to the lives of individuals.

The ancient Chinese book of changes comes to mind mainly because Jan Powell’s work can relate to both books. Her contributions to this exhibition are obviously anchored in her reading of Ovid’s narrative poem, yet the artworks are not in themselves narrative – they do not merely illustrate the stories. They often refer to particular episodes but reach neither backwards nor forwards to place these events in a narrative sequence, so the work generally has a quality of quiet abstraction. Stilled images that are emblematic of mythic situations that themselves tend towards the universal. So, in a way, her drawings merge the contextualism of Ovid with the universalism of the I Ching.

Powell’s gift as a draughtswoman manifests itself as much in what she leaves out as what she puts in. She has the courage and sureness of artistic taste to skirt the very edges of underworking her themes, and although she may slip towards the boundary at times, she has the sureness of foot to avoid crashing onto the rocks of hollow preciousness. In fact, in the most pared down and distilled drawings she even seems to question the nature of drawing itself. It is appropriate that she calls some of her work ‘meta drawings’. (She is actually referring to the pain and confusion caused by the radical transformation of form and identity, but the title could just as easily indicate a reflexive exploration of what it means to draw).

Although the sort of abstraction we get from Powell, abstraction of sign or meaning, is not so clearly present in McKerr’s work, there is a sort of overall abstraction in the modularity of his arrangement. All of the paintings are the same shape and size (six by eight inches), so that they are interchangeable. The artist has stated that his deliberate intention is to enable himself and curators to use the individual paintings as basic units that can be displayed in endless groups and permutations. This show in particular organises the pieces into regular grids identified as groups of numbered ‘Cantos’. There is something almost mathematical in this modular approach. Not in the treatment of the individual works themselves, many of which are little organic gems of image-making, but in the regular grids of the hanging and in the fact that the works are interchangeable.

McKerr is a skilful and capable painter. The work in the show is stylistically diverse, ranging from a heavy treatment reminiscent of the raw roughness of folk woodcuts, through process-dependent paintings that use the flow characteristics of diluted oil paint, to deftly handled representational works.

Alfred North Whitehead in ‘Process and Reality’ uses the evocative phrase “a lure for feeling”. He wasn’t actually speaking of art, but in the context of art it is a phrase worth savouring. We are often told that art is a form of communication. Maybe so, but not if the communication is aimed at implanting some pre-determined meaning in the mind of the viewer. Art is not a message; it is more a form of human contact that allows for a contagion of affect that can stimulate personal meaning. We could almost say that the clearer the communication the more restrictive the art, and that the best art acts, not as a trap for our attention, or a rhetorical argument, but as a lure to draw us in and to hold us in intimate contact with the work to allow the passing-in of a fertile infection of meaning.

The freedom to interpret is essential. Suggestion can bind us into an artwork more effectively than explicit reference. But we must realize that we have minds as well as hearts and eyes, the reverberations of a story or fresh adumbrations of a concept are just as valuable as an appreciation of the aesthetic mood of a work. We must also recognise that too much freedom leaves an artwork open to solipsistic projection on the part of the viewer, and if this happens then the contact (and the contract) between artist and viewer evaporates.

In this context there are clear contrasts between the approach of the two artists. Powell, the more austere and focussed of the two, deftly uses the titles of her pieces as pointers to richer readings. There is a clear sense of coherent artistic thought in her offering, the works are grouped and connected by themes that are drawn from Ovid’s stories. Themes that, although they clearly spring from the poem, are extended and moulded by the artist to give form to issues deeply felt as a woman and as an artist.

Direct references to individual stories are more difficult to discern in most of McKerr’s work. He does not title his paintings. To determine a context, we are thrown back onto the main theme of the show – that of metamorphosis. His more eclectic choice of images and more arbitrary-seeming assemblages don’t really offer thematic clues, so we are often left with pure aesthetic impact to interpret and evaluate the meanings. Not that we cannot discern a connection with Ovid. For instance, in many of his pieces we get fern-like passages that can stand for trees and fractal-like material flows. These works readily evoke the borderland between disorder and order (‘the edge of chaos’) that we find in the study of complex systems. It is quite natural to connect this with the earliest cantos of the poem where the world is drawn forth and formed from the pre-cosmic apeiron.  In other pieces we can trace a direct reference to specific metamorphoses in which, as with Powell’s work, we see portrayals of people at the very moment of morphing. Frozen chimeric images caught, not only in the agony of physical shapeshifting, but also suffering the psychological and spiritual transformation of a sort of enforced metanoia. There is also a hint of the theme of change in the very mutability of his paintings as a pool of units – an implication perhaps that the basic constituents of a world are in a sort of Heraclitan flux of unending combination and re-combination?

It must be said that the show as a whole does feel a bit fragmented – but then the artists let us know in their statement that they regard this body of work as part of a personal and joint evolution. Given this, a feeling of fragmentation is perhaps inevitable, and it does not detract from what is an interesting and thought-provoking exhibition. The work on display is very much part of an ongoing exploration rather than a final conclusion, and none the worse for that.


Des Edwards

March 2019