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William Powhida


by Walter Robinson
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“I hope nobody reviews it,” said William Powhida on the last day of his debut exhibition at Postmasters Gallery, dubbed “William Powhida: derivatives*,” Oct. 22-Nov. 26, 2011. At 5 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, the room was fairly busy, especially considering that it was Thanksgiving weekend, though only a few of the visitors had come to see Powhida himself.

A few large watercolored drawings and several smaller works filled the front gallery (the two biggest ones were on reserve, at $12,000 and $30,000), while an obnoxious soundtrack came from the back room. It was video documenting Powhida’s summer imposture at Marlborough Chelsea.  

Will Powhida get his wish for art-critical obscurity? He has received plenty of attention from art critics in the past, both positive and negative, and already has a New Yorker listing and a long blog interview this time around (and, as I write this, is on a WNYC talk show). So the question is not so much whether his hope is realized, but whether he really means it.

On the page, his carefully drawn caricatures, lists and illustrated charts have been edgy enough to piss people off. That worked pretty well at the beginning. The more he aggravated his audience, the more successful he became. Now, believe it or not, this dynamic has become the primary complaint against him. It is his fault that the art world is filled with masochists? What a revolting development this is!

This quandry seems to have made Powhida fairly miserable. In person, the artist is diffident, even depressed, the sort of thing that might happen after you discover that art, which you love, is but a bauble for the palace elites.

As a result, Powhida’s stuff, which used to be barbed and ballsy, now feels gloomy, and even bitter. In an introductory letter, he calls himself a tool and confesses to having no answers. Another work is a drawing of a list of “What’s wrong with the fucking art market.” It begins with “There’s a ton of douche bags trying to make art,” and “Some of them actually succeed in selling shit to idiots.” Is this analysis, or just irritation?

A major work, Oligarchy, charts the art business in a giant pyramid in terms that are both too obvious (Hirst and Koons at the top) and too much like schoolwork (“an oligopsony is a market form in which the number of buyers is small while the number of sellers in theory could be large”). It’s barely funny at all.

Other big pieces, like A Graph of Art World Success Relative to Ed Ruscha (2011) and Griftopia (2011), a ten-foot-wide visual interpretation of Matt Tabibi’s book of the same name, are . . .  how to say this. . .  challenging to read.

One good punch line, hidden at the bottom of a letterpress print titled The Philosophy of the Super-Wealthy, is the ultimate rich-person slogan: “Give me my fucking money!” It’s pleasantly of the same spirit as Sunday’s front page New York Times profile of the tax dodges used by museum founder Ronald Lauder.

So Powhida! Cheer up! The battle is not hopeless. We have villains aplenty for you to mock, and lots of solutions to our problems to put forth. Let’s try, for instance, raising marginal tax rates -- it would take a true artist to get a good laugh out of that imperative.

William Powhida, “derivatives*,” Oct. 22-Nov. 26, 2011, at Postmasters, 459 West 19th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.