Joe Overstreet’s Power Flight can be seen at the Brooklyn Museum. The work, made in 1971, consists of multiple canvas panel– six of them– stained with acrylic. The panels alternate red and black, except at the machine-sewn seams, which have been painted green. The panels are pulled in various directions by white ropes. These ropes, knotted through grommets in the panels’ corners, extend outward, anchoring the work into the walls, ceiling, and floor of the fourth-floor gallery. The piece looks rather like a box kite slowly unfolding. Or, perhaps, like a tent. The wall text reads: “The resulting angular shape suggests the sort of small nomadic shelters that fascinate the artist– structures easily assembled and disassembled by individuals in flight from threatening situations, both natural and human-made.”
In books such as Architecture Without Architects and The Prodigious Builders, Bernard Rudofsky championed what he termed the “architectural vernacular”: traditional, often non-Western architectural and quasi-architectural practices that defy expectation, from the “sleigh huts of Bulgarian nomadic shepherds” to bad-gir windscoops of Hyderabad Sind to Anatolian beehives. The effect of flipping through these books is strangely disorienting: the world seems suddenly unfamiliar. On tents, Rudofsky largely relies on a single quotation:
“tents and pavilions, ‘ the magnificent structures that have been the pride of the monarchs of Western Asia for thousands of years, fabrications huge in size, very costly, and even if not permanent, often of extraordinary beauty,’ have never been seriously considered architecture by art historians, complains historian Arthur Upham Pope.”
Overstreet’s work was featured in the 2005 exhibition, High Times Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975. The paintings in this show sought to revivify the medium following the pronouncement of its demise. They did so by questioning its most basic assumptions– its flatness, for example, or what sort of materials ought to be used. Appropriately, women and minorities, largely shut out of the history and tradition of painting, made great contributions to this self-critical reassessment and re-direction. Consequently, in these paintings, formal critique is often overlaid by a political critique. This is the case with Overstreet’s Power Flight: according to the wall text, the red, black, and green “allude to the colors of black liberation.” And thus, as the name suggests, Power Flight affirms strength even as it makes reference to retreat. Indeed, to be mobile, adaptable, is perhaps, here, the source of strength rather than the recourse of weakness. And painting itself, which broadly is the object of critique in an unconventional work like this, is also a means of empowerment.