William Powhida is a visual artist and former art critic who continues to blaze the way forward with his satirical, often times biting editorials of the art world today. His exhibition, “Seditions,” on view at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary through the end of March 2012, illustrates a road map into the art world and market.
Powhida maintains a strong presence in cyberspace. He is a veteran blogger, tumblr-er (G-E-N-I-U-S), tweeter, and commentator. In addition, he frequently participates in public discussions and events. In 2010, Powhida and artist Jen Dalton hosted #class at Ed Winkelman Gallery in New York. Transforming the gallery into a classroom-style think tank, the pair solicited the participation of critics, dealers, artists, academics, “art-lovers and art-haters,” and the general public to discuss the complexities and paradoxes of the art world. A+C writer, Rachel Van Horn caught up with the controversial artist on his visit to Dallas.
AC: Tell us about your first show in 2005, ‘Personas’, the worked seemed more personal.
POWHIDA: During graduate school, the work began to move into this personal narrative and moving away from trying to depict the work in a painterly manner. In first show in 2005, there were elements of having a character; starting to break apart the different roles I was playing and thinking about how identity is constructed by context. I was doing art criticism and teaching full-time and finding myself becoming, not really a bitter artist but having these feelings of intense pressure to succeed.
AC: The work began to evolve and you began to become more specific.
POWHIDA: One of the artists that I singled out in the work was Jules de Balincourt. I was commenting about how his career took off after graduate school into commercial gallery success with big shows and his prices went through the roof. It was happening so quickly that I started to comment on how careers were made or how it seemed to be working. It wasn’t personal; I didn’t even know the artist. It was about how he was being represented in the press and media. I found that mentioning any specific name was something almost taboo.
AC: You were specific. You called people out by name; people that could make or break your career. How did you find the courage?
POWHIDA: To be honest, I had nothing to lose. It seemed like it can’t get any worse than this, which is nothing. Also, I just had to admit at a certain point, whatever I was experiencing in my own life is not so interesting that I needed to inflict it on other people; by talking about a broader relationship with the art world, using this kind of character as a proxy with the ability to invent scenarios and situations, people had such a different reaction to the work. It began the more important conversation. There was something interesting in the way people would read the work – they would laugh and talk and engage it. Courage, I wouldn’t even call it courage.
AC: Had you always felt like this way?
POWHIDA: No. I went to school and no one talked about the social aspect of it. It wasn’t discussed in school. I think the prevailing notion was none of you are ever going to sell any work; you are never going to have an art career, so why should we waste our time teaching you about any of that. I really love where I did my under graduate work, but Syracuse might as well be in Dallas. Once you are outside of New York City you are outside. They weren’t engaged in the art world in that way.
Also, I had to go and experience it for myself because I went straight to Hunter’s College for graduate school. I was 22 or 23, so between work and just being a graduate student I didn’t really know what the hell was going on. The three years after graduate school were a very informative experience.
AC: Is this what influenced you satirizing the art world and how you perceived it to work?
POWHIDA: I became fascinated with how it worked and wanted to talk about those experiences. Obviously, in a straightforward manner is very boring, it just becomes writing. So, part of it was taking any feelings of anger and using it to make something that would be funny. There wasn’t much humor in the art I was seeing. There were a couple people in Williamsburg that were sort of tapping into this angry bitter artist. If this is what they are taking seriously, then maybe I will go in this other direction, sort of in this absurd territory. If I am feeling angry or bitter, just turn it back into the work and see where it’s coming from. Which part of the art world am I feeling really fucked up about?
The character becomes the permission to speak about the things you are not supposed to or you are not allowed. Also, it served as a container for everything I was experiencing. The work had two clear veins early – lists and letters written in this hysterical, desperate voice demanding recognition while cataloging hierarchies in the art world and narrative pieces satirizing other artists and dealers. In these experiences, there was no connection to what I thought art was, so part of it was reconciling what I experienced out in the art world versus what I had imagined it to be. That was a painful process of, ‘Wow’, it is so different.
AC: How did your work as a critic begin to reveal truths you otherwise would not have known?
POWHIDA: When I started writing criticism, it created a lot of access where I was talking to galleries about the art because I was writing about the art, but I was also talking to them about the gallery world and how it worked. It began to fuse with what was or wasn’t happening in the studio. The work started to become a merging of this critical dialogue of my own feelings of frustration with the gallery system and trying to get some kind of exposure; the two practices of being a critic and speaking about how you feel about things merging with all the feelings of trying to get shows or trying to find a voice. In most cases, this is developing an artistic style or distinguishing yourself. The writing becomes so much a part of it; those feelings of frustration, anxiety, and pressure to succeed in the middle of a huge art boom where it seemed like everybody was getting shows.
AC: Did you find the system elitist?
POWHIDA: It just feels that way so they can feel justified asking a $100,000 for something with no history attached to it. They put it up on the wall and you should just pay this much money for it because they are also charging that much down the street. If you don’t believe us, just look at the polished concrete floors and that girl who is very pretty who will burn a hole through you if you ask any questions.
AC: In 2005 your brother was a loan officer and you began to learn about the loan practices. These practices were not general knowledge. Again, you had access to information influencing your art with your piece ‘Market Crash’, a prediction of the financial crisis.
POWHIDA: You are absolutely right. There was this question, “where was this sort of art boom money coming from?” Then, the realization that this can’t last; if money is coming from sub-prime mortgages, that people like my brother were doing, we are all fucked. When I showed ‘Market Crash’, everyone was laughing at it and thought it was funny. They were saying, “…so you think the art market is going to crash?” I was like, “are people crazy?” When the market did crash in 2008, I was in Seattle for a show. The show was about this character that was getting out of the art business to pursue a career as a rock star. The character was modeled after Anton Newcombe from Bryan Jonestown Massacre with a bit Axel Rose. It was to critique the art star as well as a warning to say this money can’t last. People need to figure out an exit strategy of some kind. When the show opened, it was literally the day of the stock market crash. It was the most sober and sad opening I have ever experienced. There was this reality you didn’t want to acknowledge was coming.
POWHIDA: It was me looking a little deeper at what was going on and the clarity from my brother being a loan officer. I remember my brother saying, “Are you interested in buying property because if you just give me a copy of your driver’s license, I could probably get you $100,000 tomorrow”. That was before the term, “ninja loan”; no income, no job, no problem. All of this combined with my feelings about how the money fueling the art boom was rooted in these terrible truths.
The shocker, there was no bust this time, prices on blue chip art went up, and art fairs didn’t shut down, they expanded. It has been really painful. Everyone realizes now, and what Occupy Wall Street talks about, income inequality. People at the crash in 2008 who were worth $20M were worth $14M the next day. That doesn’t stop you from buying contemporary art, not when you have invested lots of money. We learned from the last art market crash not to just dump art.
AC: How did this manifest in prices in the art market?
POWHIDA: The reality that the real economy went off a cliff and we have been in the recession for a long time didn’t affect the art market, it kept on going, like business as usual. I don’t know if you know the artist Andrea Frasier, she does a lot of installation work and institutional critique. She did a piece a few years ago, where she had sex with a collector on commission and that was the piece. She wrote a really scathing critique that links these ideas together. The art market with these kinds of crazy prices hasn’t been about how well the economy was doing, it is about income inequality and wealth concentrated at the top.
As Andrea Frazier put it, “What was good for the art world was terribly bad for the rest of the world”. It creates this cognitive dissonance where you can’t just say, “we are artists, we make things that are good for the world, art is good you, art is a sign of culture. How could valuing art be bad”? When you realize where all the money is coming from, that is when you feel really shitty about selling or participating at all.
AC: What now? I mean how should an artist go about surviving all of this and still create?
POWHIDA: There are these questions, where you have to confront these hard choices centering on how to continue or ways of working in the art world that might challenge this kind of market system. A system where a relatively small number of very wealthy collectors buy works that they donate to museums, where they are trustees and board members. There is an opinion now that some of this has to change. For me, it has been interesting, someone who has been yelling and screaming about all of this over the past 5 or 6 years and now, Occupy Wall Street, comes together where these conversations are happening publicly and people are listening.
AC: The work that followed at Marlborough Gallery seemed to bring a lot of negative press your way.
POWHIDA: The show in Marlborough Gallery is where I presented the character, Powhida, in real time, with just one hideous painting, executed by another artist. It was a battle where I could not compromise what I wanted to say, because that would implicate Marlborough in this critique about big art spaces that show really crappy art a lot of the time. Why was there no art, it was just this raging character. It becomes so much of what it is about instead of interesting art. When I pitched that show to Marlborough, I said I am not giving you any art work, I will give you one big, ugly painting, the character Powhida who will be this actor, and my name in big letters in the gallery. We are going to shock people. They are going to start talking about this artist who has been doing socially responsible or critical work and who is now going to a blue chip gallery. That is going look questionable and shady, like is he selling out?
AC: The show confused people, especially the critics.
POWHIDA: The critical discourse that happened was fascinating because there were people that didn’t get it at all, people who understood it but were like we don’t care, you are just full of yourself, and THEN, there were people that were like OK, this is just a scathing satire and everyone is implicated. That was all I could hope for, you know. In the end, everything that had been written was part of the show. If I could have finished that piece in the most perfect way, it would have been just a note to the press and media, thank you for making my art show. It was a risk worth taking because I was able to follow it up with a show in the fall.
AC: The event you organized with artist Jennifer Dalton, #class, a critique of wealth and status in the art world was interesting. You had panels, artist projects, and lectures. It was clever using a #hashtag providing exposure on Twitter.
POWHIDA: I worked with Jennifer Dalton, who is another artist that critiques the art world. I think it created a strong sense of community and engagement. The other end of the spectrum was the Marlboro show, where it was using the art world itself as the material. The show that followed at Postmasters, ‘Griftopia’, about inequality, where I did a 10’x5′ drawing about where the money was coming from and how does Marlborough exist, brought it back why I was doing the work.
AC: What are you doing now? Is #class continuing?
POWHIDA: I attended the arts and labor meetings in January. There were discussions around real estate, because artists are constantly migrating from neighborhood to neighborhood as a result of not having the means to buy property. Labor rights for people who work in the art world, trying to create better conditions. There are people looking at alternatives within the art world by creating alternative economies. I am interested in learning more about these alternatives where stake holders can invest their money differently than they do today in the art world.
I have been thinking about a piece, ‘Things You Could Do with Your Money for the Price of One Damien Hirst’. You could buy an artist’s studio and fund it for a couple of years rent free and put your name it. Buy some art out of the studio. How you can participate outside of the market or outside of just donating money to museums that have their own agenda. There needs to be other alternatives, so I think #class may end up continuing in another way.
AC: I think it should become a larger conversation where artists and stake-holders from other areas outside of New York add perspective.
POWHIDA: Absolutely. The conversation is universal. Within your community what can you do, affecting your own situation and then bringing it back into the central questions of equality, working with others, sharing information? Occupy Wall Street is doing it and they are able to have these big meetings with other groups. This takes time to spread out into other communities.
AC: What are the solutions?
POWHIDA: It is hard to say what the solutions are. Some of these solutions can be challenging if you prepared yourself to work a certain way as an artist. To fight and struggle within the market and find some success, are you still prepared to let all or some of that go in terms of how you might proceed as an artist but still have this inner dialogue and make work that you want to make. Those solutions have to come from people working and talking together. It is not a top down thing. It is a collaborative process and I think you will see more and more of these discussions as they reverberate into the upper circles of the art world.