William Powhida has been tracking the feeding habits of the oligarchy for years, which makes it seem almost prophetic that the Supreme Court struck down overall spending limits on Federal elections during the run of Overculture, his second solo show at Postmasters Gallery.
In fact, his first exhibition with Postmasters, Derivatives (2011), featured a painting called “Oligopoly (Revised)” (2011), a densely layered art world food pyramid topped by billionaire collectors while “The Yearning Unselected * You Are Probably Here” sink to the bottom. The showstopper, however, was the mind-boggling “Griftopia” (2011), an elaborately conceived and brilliantly executed five-by-ten-foot drawing based on Matt Taibbi’s 2010 book Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America, an exposé probing the labyrinthine collusions and self-dealing among the moneyed elite that precipitated the crash of ’08.
The economic and cultural critique teeming through that show lays the foundation of Overculture, a term apparently invented by the artist, which he defines in a brief but densely worded press release as “a small cultural group (artists) within the larger culture,” the members of which, we might infer, include Hirst-Murakami-Koons and other Neo-Warholians, “often affirming the beliefs or interests of the ruling class (collectors).”
From this premise, Powhida cites the courtier caste of artists as cultural enablers whose cachet among a global network of collectors, dealers and auctioneers satisfies their patrons’ elitism while reinforcing the echo chamber enclosing the superrich.
Like 19th-century French academicians, overculture artists flatter the circumscribed presumptions of an imperial order in which (from the press release), “price functions as the sign of absolute cultural value (Art) that subordinates all other relative cultural values (creative labor).” And like the Calvinist elect, their upward spiral at the auction house becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of their place in the pantheon.
It is one thing to play the role of high-end decorator to abysmal taste; it is another to convince your paymasters that the eye candy you’ve just sold them is a claim to intellectual and even moral superiority (not unlike the eight-figure bonuses that seem, to the recipient, like fair wages for hard work). No wonder Dante planted the flatterers in the Eighth Circle, below the panderers and seducers, and covered them in shit.
The exhibition is divided by a freestanding sheetrock wall into two parts. On the left, Powhida has hung text-based pieces, including his familiar lists and flowcharts, along with a riff on Ad Reinhardt’s cartoon, “How to Look at Modern Art in America” (“How To Look @ The Contemporary Art-Industrial Complex in America,” 2014), and a couple of list paintings with the words mostly obscured by colorful redactions and angry scribbles.
While his takedowns of the vanities of the art world remain hilarious, a diptych in graphite and colored pencil titled “A Thing We Are Outraged By Or Concerned About” (2014) has an altogether different feel. The graphite portion, on the left, takes the form of a flow chart while the one in colored pencil resembles a subject cloud. The two drawings swarm with labels denoting social and political issues (“Privacy,” “Sustainability,” “Patents,” “Drones,” and so on), such that the topics are clearly legible and set into a context, but remain discrete and, it would seem, irresolvable — competing concerns that never coalesce into a forward movement. This work, like 2011’s “Griftopia,” suggests an ambition to find a way to articulate our vertiginous moment without stinting on its complexity, a graphic format with the potential to become an art of everything.
The other part of the show is something of a departure for the artist — large-scale, non-narrative works representing the tools of Powhida’s particular trade — notebook paper, color charts, strips of tape — as well as a convincing trompe l’oeil image on the freestanding sheetrock depicting a studio wall. There are also oversized sculptures of crumpled notebook paper littering the floor.
In his review of this show in the Village Voice, Christian Viveros-Faune speculates that the balled-up sheets of paper “literalize the frustration that ensues” when Powhida’s words to the wise (“err on the side of too little, it’s never too late for minimalism” or “one more time just a little bigger shinier”) “despite their absurdity, are taken seriously.”
I wonder, though, whether the artist is also creating his own version of overculture art in these larger-than-life pieces, which include send-ups (at least as I read them) of Tauba Auerbach, Gerhard Richter and possibly others. The blank pages, in contrast to the paintings and drawings on the other side of the wall, present a content-free, aestheticized Powhida — a change we’d never want to happen for real, but that demurral doesn’t make these works any less of an elegiac coda to the exhibition.
Powhida may very well be frustrated, or worse, as he watches the overculture imitate the hegemonic strategies of the class it serves. While the problem may not seem all that momentous in the bigger picture, it embodies a pollution of art’s role in modern society, a spiritual code lost in silence. Luis Buñuel said that artists, if nothing else, “keep an essential margin of non-conformity alive. Thanks to them the powerful can never affirm that everyone agrees with their acts. That small difference is important.”
William Powhida: Overculture continues at Postmasters Gallery (54 Franklin Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through April 19.