Coney Island Dreaming: Following the Signs to Stephen Powers

Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull) is one of 3 new exhibits inspired by the historic attractions of Brooklyn’s seaside

Graffiti artist-turned-sign painter Stephen Powers is dreaming of Coney Island and he is bringing a colorful collection of found and freshly produced signage that evokes a forgotten era to climb the columns of a Brooklyn Museum gallery.

Given the boisterous parade of brands and logos into museums that is happening as part of the institutional funding and programming mix, its fun to see the ninth episodic installation of this traveling ICY SIGNS shop here; its simplicity and guile recalling amusing persuasive techniques from the mid-century American advertising lexicon. Simultaneously, for those who have been lucky enough to sicken themselves on cotton candy and The Wonder Wheel, the new show imparts a rather reassuring and seedy nostalgia for Coney Island, complete with an inexplicable hankering for a thick beef hot dog.

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Just as warm weather recedes and late autumn’s chill darkens that historic city seaside amusement park, the popsicles and sand and titillating oddities are all rushing inside for the winter at Brooklyn Museum. Here and in adjacent galleries, the stage-directing showfolks at BKM are offering conjoined triplets for you to gawk at: Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull), Coney Island: Visions of An American Dreamland, 1861-2008 and Forever Coney: Photographs from the Brooklyn Museum Collection.

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

In tandem with his merry band of mostly reformed graffiti writers-turned-sign painters, Powers’ installation pops up and outward chaotically like nighttime fireworks seen from the boardwalk on the 4th. The fast talking Philadelphia-born Powers is a natural carnival barker, showman, and punny word player, and this textual chorus of messages invites you to consider the tantalizing language of the pitch as well.

While you tumble layer upon layer, feel free to revel in the clever permutations of implorative doublespeak delivered with non-linear panache, a cluster of colorful visual cues here cut from their tether and flying above your head. Rather than actually selling you something, however, it’s the method of delivery that Powers is celebrating. It’s a joyride of icons that trumpets the juxtaposition of the graphic, the selection of the symbol, the wink of an eye, the turn of the word, the jocular joust.

Just like any rollercoaster or peeping attraction, its a thrill best enjoyed by holding on tight, alternately letting go completely, blurring your eyes and drinking in the candied, fried, salty sweetness. And just like any tourist attraction that helps those yearning for a closer view, a classic binocular tower viewer is sited center stage for you to gaze further than the human eye.

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

In a city that is quickly stamping out the last remaining handmade signage that was once ubiquitous on bodegas, candy shops, record stores, laundromats, restaurants, bars, pizza joints, and hot dog stands, it is ironic that these new signs recalling that communication vernacular are being brought into the museum. If any of these signs remain in public space today, they are faded glories overlooked, often called “ghost signs”. Powers brings the language back to life, inverting the expected, cleverly blending in his own sense of Coney Island romance, heavily salted and smothered in ketchup.

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Anne Pasternak, the new director of this encyclopedic institution, saw the value in preserving this particular character of New York when she was President and Artistic Director of Creative Time and the organization collaborated with Powers for the first time in 2004 and 2005 on The Dreamland Artists Club in Coney Island. Those first two projects were the genesis of their collaboration in Coney Island again in 2008 with The Waterboard Thrill Ride. Emblazoned by Powers’ hand painted wit the darkly satirical project was sited in a Coney Island peeing booth/grindhouse that stirred controversy for its animatronic depiction of torture.

More often Powers’ installations in a dozen or more cities are affectionately referred to as Love Letters, including massive text-based projects that cover walls and neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Syracuse and 2011’s Love Letter to Brooklyn, which wrapped a building with city inspired phrases of 250 or so words in downtown BK.

Here at the museum you are best served to get in close and go full bore into the jumbled chaos of words always at play in Power’s work and mind. The installation features the twisted phraseology of a country baked in advertising jingles, slogans, and blustery bromides and each of the artists (Justin Green, Matt Wright, Mike Levy, Dan Murphy, Mike Lee, Mimi Gross, Alexis Ross, Sean Barton, Eric Davis, and Tim Curtis) bring their own handstyles and witticism to these conversations, a playful and sarcastic examination that bubbles and splashes like waterfalls of words beneath the rotunda.

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

As Powers and team completed their installation this week for Friday’s opening we spoke with curator Sharon Matt Atkins, Vice Director of Exhibitions and Collections Management, to see if the newest iteration of ICY SIGNS has been the fun house that it appears to be.

Brooklyn Street Art: Can you talk about the intersection of the three exhibits here as expressed in the signage of Powers?
Sharon Matt Atkins: Our three Coney Island exhibitions capture the spirit of the seaside community and give a feeling for how the place has inspired generations of artists. Powers’ installation in particular brings the visual language of Coney Island to the Museum by recalling the great tradition of hand-painted signs.

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Brooklyn Street Art: How much of the exhibit is specific to this installation and how much is heritage pieces from its pre-iterations?
Sharon Matt Atkins: This installation combines found signs alongside those created by Powers and ICY SIGNS. The works by Powers and ICY SIGNS include both earlier work as well as new signs and paintings created for this exhibition.

Brooklyn Street Art: Brooklyn Museum is once again embracing the language of Brooklyn streets and public space, bringing it into a gallery and presenting it as vital and worthy of consideration. How does this one compare to the shows you organized for Swoon and Faile?
Sharon Matt Atkins: I have loved seeing the Cantor Gallery transformed with each artist’s installation, and also with recent exhibitions like Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic and Crossing Brooklyn. It’s a beautiful space that lends itself to different kinds of experiences.

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Brooklyn Street Art: How does the space lend to or present a challenge for the displaying of the multiple signs?
Sharon Matt Atkins:
Powers and team really wanted to respond to the architecture, much in keeping with how signage becomes layered in cities and places like Coney Island. Working with the piers of the Museum’s Cantor Gallery, they built layers and stretched upward about 40 feet, creating these soaring towers of signs that are anchored by sign benches at their bases. Providing a lively and educational element to the exhibition, we will also have sign painters at work here on Thursday evenings, and afternoons on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Stephen Powers . ICY SIGNS “Shameak” “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

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Steve Powers “Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)” Brooklyn Museum. November 2015 (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Steve Powers’ site specific installation “Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull)” is presented in conjunction with “Coney Island: Visions of An American Dreamland, 1861-2008”. Both exhibitions will open to the public this Friday, November 20th and will run until March 13, 2016. Click HERE for more details.

 

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This article is also published on The Huffington Post

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