LOS ANGELES — When Marcel Duchamp submitted his signed urinal to a group exhibition in 1917, he certainly couldn’t have predicted that his decontextualized toilet would represent the dawn of an era in which everything and anything could be “art.” Take some mundane object or action, add word salad — et voilà, you have art. Manipulated photographs aren’t simply manipulated photographs. They are “visual statements that are at once documentary and fictional.”
A painter’s brush strokes don’t come together to form a picture, are textures that “function as proof of past operations.” And a piece of taxidermy isn’t just a stuffed animal. It’s “a state of apparent life premised on actual death.” In the Bermuda Triangle of Art, an object is never an object. It’s a physical vessel with which to deliver heaps of impenetrable prose — prose intended to convince some aspiring patron that the mound of detritus before him is pregnant with meaning (in addition to looking great over the couch).
Navigating this universe of intellectual gymnastics and 200,000 square-foot art fairs requires a good deal of studiousness and an excellent bullshit detector — traits that New York artist William Powhida possesses in spades. Powhida has spent his short career (he is only 37) deconstructing the power and money mechanics of the art world in intensely-detailed drawings and paintings that are part political cartoon, part stream-of consciousness rant. In an infamous 2009 collaboration with artist Jade Townsend, he portrayed the habitués of Art Basel Miami Beach in a steamy, stinking Hooverville.
That same year, an illustration he did for the cover of the Brooklyn Rail displayed the uncomfortably chummy connections between some New York galleries and Manhattan’s New Museum (and helped stir up a media shit storm). In 2011, in a solo show at Postmasters Gallery in Chelsea, he diagrammed the social and professional links shared by the architects of the financial collapse. Now, in his latest solo show, on view at Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles, he pulls back the veil on the art-making process and its attendant verbiage.
For this exhibit, Powhida enlisted the assistance of other artists and fabricators to produce works that embody the worst art market tropes, such as the shiny object, the cool minimalist tower, and the incredibly bad painting of a skull. Alongside each piece he has added his signature touch: a trompe l’oeil painting of a hand-written note that details the process, budget and reasoning behind each work, with plenty of smart aleck-y remarks stuffed in between.
The following rumination accompanies a single strip of pink neon affixed to the gallery wall:
“Art might value an invention (singular) but the market demands product (plural) and will accept endless minor variations on a single idea. We can pretty much do anything over and over again. This may be why art history is long, but not terribly deep, and why there is SO MUCH FUCKING NEON.”
A trio of digitally-produced color-field, we learn, was crafted by running pieces of currency through some fancy filters on Photoshop — literally, money on the wall. A taxidermy of a coyote in a wooden crate draws comparisons to Damien Hirst and Joseph Beuys, and the observation that coyotes are like artists because “they are extremely territorial … and like to fight each other.” The tendency toward unpolished geometric abstraction — which Powhida refers to as “D.I.Y. Informalism” — is represented by three white, silver and pink canvases hammered together in bulky, asymmetrical shapes. The idea: “To play around with some studio junk and stuff from the hardware store to make a few awkward objects without thinking intuitively with feeling!”
This may sound like the world’s most overwrought art gag. And, certainly, there is no small irony in critiquing the creative numbness of the art market with pieces that will be sold on that very same market. But Powhida’s artistic spoofs are so spot on, and his critiques so incisive, it’s hard not to get sucked in by the whole exercise. The anonymous minimalist sculpture might as well be the anonymous minimalist sculpture found in countless corporate lobbies. The expressionistic painting of a skull seems destined for a one-night warehouse art party with DJs and Red Bull. It’s like every commercial gallery/art fair/Bushwick basement I’ve ever been to — with the benefit that the accompanying texts couldn’t be more engrossing or hilarious: “You realize people are going to like these,” it reads in the notes for the skull painting. “Fuck.”
Certainly, this taxonomy of clichés overlooks the breakthroughs that artists can and do have. Powhida has chosen to train his laser vision on a part of the art world that is more preoccupied with product than it is with ideas. Yet he hits on an essential truth about a culture that treats art like a financial commodity. Spend an afternoon wandering around the gleaming white-box spaces in Culver City, and you’ll find all of these clichés being served up for five, six, and seven figures. In Powhida’s hands, art world platitudes are mordantly funny. In Culver City, not so much.