A general view of Wiliam Powhida's new exhibition at the Charlie James Gallery in LA. (via cjamesgallery.com)

A general view of Wiliam Powhida’s new exhibition at the Charlie James Gallery in LA. (via cjamesgallery.com)

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).

05 Coyote Piece

A taxidermied coyote is set in a wood crate with pink packing peanuts. Powhida’s text reveals that it was hit by a car in New Jersey: “Poor bastard.” (click to enlarge)

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.

07 Skull Notes

The notes for “A (really bad, bad) Neo-Expressionist Painting,” a type of work that is a staple in all commercial art spaces. This piece best channels Powhida’s acid humor: “Friday at 3:30 it was blank. At 5:30 it was on the floor while we drank beers.”

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.”

03 Color Field

In “Some Asset Class (Digital) Paintings – Color Field,” Powhida plays with the thinking and methodology behind so much glossy digital work.

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!”

01 Minimalism

Eviscerating content-less work: a detail of Powhida’s notes from “A Post Minimalism,” in which he proposes creating a pleasing sculpture out of bar graphs documenting inequity. (click to enlarge)

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.

William Powhida, Bill by Bill, is on view at Charlie James Gallery (969 Chung King Rd, Chinatown, Los Angeles) through June 8. You can download a PDF of the exhibition catalogue online.

Carolina A. Miranda is an independent journalist based in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to ARTnews and public radio. Find her on Twitter @cmonstah.

6 replies on “The Bermuda Triangle of Art”

  1. “Criticism of the Art World” is also a fairly lucrative genre, and Powhida seems to have the right angle, which makes him one of the most successful in this genre.

  2. Assuming that Powhida is simply using his “bullshit detector” and exposing the art world for what it is implies he creates one-liners. Why present it as such in the first couple paragraphs of your article? You don’t seem to think that this is what he does. These are humorous and insightful but they don’t offer a quick answer, rather lots of questions beyond the simple “is the art world really so fucked?”. Making artwork which is funny, investigative, and makes us question things is very hard to do and Powhida does this very well. Everyone can spit on digital paintings and offer snide sarcastic remarks. The joke never lasts. Adding multiple layers if inquiry and humor is quite different.

    Finally, the fact that Powhida makes us question his intentions every time is pretty awesome.

  3. Seriously… didn’t a thousand art school students do this exact show like ten years ago?

  4. Oh my god, I got scared watching the coyote. It looks so real. I really love people with
    artistic minds and creative work. I do respect them very well. May it be
    pleasing to the eyes or not, for as long as they make an effort to do it and
    with originality then it’s wonderful. -http://www.wallums.com/

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