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Detail of William Powhida’s “A Subjective Classification of Things” (2013) (all images courtesy the artist and Charlie James Gallery)

Artist William Powhida is a favorite here at Hyperallergic, since his drawings regularly lampoon the art world for its culture, rituals, and hypocrisy. His latest drawing, “A Subjective Classification of Things,” is currently on display at the Charlie James Gallery booth at Expo Chicago this weekend, and it is his latest screed against the sameness in an industry that prides itself on being different. In the work, he illustrates the tropes that one regularly encounters in the art fairs with the predictability of items at Walmart. We asked Powhida for his thoughts on the art market, contemporary art, and the drive to classify the baubles at art fairs:

As an artist, I am very aware that I am working within the well-trod traditions of Western Art history. Most visual artists who also still produce some artifact work within a rather predictable and narrow set of boundaries that define their ability to be creative. So much contemporary art feels immediately familiar even as the artist tries to individuate their work within the formula to make something old new again. At its most base, a lot of art is simply endless variations on received ideas that fit neatly into a recognizable traditions; Expressionism, Minimalism, Hard-edged abstraction, the ready-made, Pop art, and so on. Unfortunately, and this comes from a pretty dismal place where art meets fashion like say the Met’s show PUNK: From Chaos to Couture, art isn’t just something to look at for me. At its best art is part of new ways of understanding the world(s) an artist inhabits. I tend to think of T.J. Clark writing about Manet’s “Olympia” from a class perspective less than I do about the way in which Manet is slotted aesthetically into Modernism for flattening out his subjects. At its worst, art is all so much style, different clothes for an artist to try on and see if they match their desire for self-expression while hoping it is bought up into the domain of the ruling class. Right now, in the absence of a culturally competitive, alternative economy, the market and capital judgments of collectors, “I believe in this so much, I will pay $200,000” tend to dominate our perceptions of what constitutes important art.

I left out a category in my own trope (more lists and categories of things) “Some Expressive Mark-Making”, which I could illustrate with Oscar Murillo’s $400K auction record-setting Cy Twombly impersonation. I get it, the dude is an excellent practitioner of Nth generation Abstract Expressionism, but the work leaves me feeling empty like looking at something that popped out of wormhole fully-formed from 1968 with a 2013 museum-quality price tag. The most interesting thing to discuss is Murillo’s biography and rapid ascent to the top of the art world pyramid of selectivity. It’s at least as interesting as Jacob Kassay’s career trajectory. I certainly can appreciate both artists’ work for their visual appeal within a very narrowly defined set of definitions of visual art, but just don’t ask me any questions about their value. I’ve got nothing. What I see are things that look like art, suspects fitting the description of something one might see in MoMA, ready-made to adorn the lobbies of banks and hedge fund offices.

“A Subjective Classification of Things” is not an exhaustive catalogue of contemporary art. It’s a representation of how I think about the derivative nature of the contemporary art market art, whose major struggle in coming into existence seems to be how closely it can look like something that belongs in an art fair. It’s a pretty horrible way to think about art, infinite variations where creativity is expressed through increasingly minor distinctions from this or that, but it’s also a defense mechanism against the horrific realization that most art produced for the market is just a fleeting decorative element. Maybe it’s why we talk so much about art. Anyway, it’s a little better when you realize this kind of art really isn’t all that important, however serious the claims or how high the price. It’s really nothing to get so worked up about. Have some fun with it. Put a bird on it. Put in a bucket. Stick some gum on it. Make a science project …

Williams Powhida, “A Subjective Classification of Things” (2013) (click to enlarge)

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

22 replies on “Is All the Stuff at Art Fairs the Same-ish?”

  1. Great stuff, but besides pointing out how reductive and conforming the market is, what now? Should we as artists just do the exact opposite? Or like Powhida, crack wise and cash in?

    1. That dude is a sham. I had a journal of his for many years that he’d left at a friend’s house. Read through the whole thing. Within it I found he’s got no artistic craving, ideas nor talent, just pure ambition, so what he does is just mediocre drawings without personality whining at not being able to participate with original content like the art he criticizes. He’s just a bro, art for bro’s with inferiority complex.

  2. It’s called satire, get over it people. And I think it’s quite clever and amusing. Go to any art school, and it all looks like this!!! It’s interesting that the artist chooses to make his artwork ABOUT the artworld. Critical art is a perfectly valid form of art, even if it’s criticizing other artists or art movements, or art cliches in this case.

  3. I’d call it illustrated art criticism, and its accurate. There’s plenty of room for pictures and texts about rooms, empty ones, filled ones, imaginary ones. This reflective, acidic irony has been going around since the early 20th century and it’s manifested in a range of art works – if you look closely, Powhida lampoons himself. We all want to see ourselves (and others) reflected in the mirrors. As for “cashing in,” two words: Oh please. And two more: You wish.

    1. Seems to me that he is just following a tradition of art critiquing art in a way that reinforces the very things being criticized. As for the knee jerk accusations of jealousy, I do not wish. I would not make work for the commodity market if you paid me.

  4. I dig the message, but I fault the premise. Art is not necessarily a struggle to define a patch of ‘new’ in the ancient garden of western tradition, it can also be about the struggle of personal revelation. If I choose to paint trees in a landscape for the whole of my life, who can say it is time wasted? If I make no money or see no fame, does it alter the value of my pursuit one iota? Maybe it’s not about what the world thinks about me and rather just the way light falls on the side of a building at sunset.

  5. It’s accurate, but unoriginal in itself. Some curator thought they’d be clever showing this guys stuff, but in a few months no one will care. Plus, I pity someone who’s art revolves around what others do, and has no inspiration from the creator. It’s really just sad, and this person seems like someone I would feel very sorry for, because this work lacks joy or beauty or intelligence.

  6. Whatever ones opinion is of the problematic nature of putting forth this kind of critique of art THROUGH art, (a dilemma I myself acknowledge) or in thinking about it at all (Mr. Powhida says himself ” ‘It’s a pretty horrible way to think about art’ ) – It is a mistake to write off such criticism completely or to take a reactionary stance “what now”. For a long time now there has been a noticeable malaise by those that work in the what can by now be fairly be called ‘the art industry’ or ‘art field’ – objections to the way any community is drifting (art world being a community in the sociological sense) should not be written off so easily as mere ‘envy’, for critiquing the current direction of art and its communities does not mean a denial of the importance of art itself. Powhida clearly states that. The question of how to change the state that art has found itself in, and if its even possible to consciously do so, remains an open one. I do still think the best art is that which promotes thought experientially, in the sense that ones thoughts can go anywhere, or allow them to see their own world differently, rather than promoting specific topics such as Powhidas, but this is why blatantly political work is so hard to attempt to pull off. But someone has to do it.

    1. Hi, Peter. Nice comment, which (like strong art) got me to thinking. Is “the state that art has found itself” really a condition of the art or a condition of those who comment on or “consume” art? Art critics, it seems, have run out of original pigeonholes in which to put art. In other words, no matter what a contemporary artist produces, the art critic has a ready-made compartment in which to put it and thereby in some way dismiss it. We now have an “ism” in which to put anything an artist will attempt. Should that even be a concern for the artist? A business can only expand so far before it has to become predatory in order to meet the expectations for increasing profits in the next quarter. Is this a failing of the business or the product/service provided by that business? Or, is it a failing brought about by the tyranny of the “new” which is superimposed over work by those who comment and consume but do not produce? If self-referential satire seems like the last hope for attracting critical acclaim in the “art industry” then that is a fault within the “industry” not the art. Trying to produce work for an industry wracked with its own self-imposed malaise is a fool’s game producing fool’s art. Powhida’s observation (take a joke… lighten up) is a good one, but he could take it a bit deeper by pointing out with better accuracy exactly what we should be laughing at. Hint: its not the art.

      1. Peter, I’m certain you’ve recently walked through an art fair somewhere on the planet and have seen exactly what Powhida illustrates. As I mentioned above, we’ve long had this dialogue about an “explosion in a shingle factory.” Visual artists have also poked fun and poured their acid on almost everything (if you include illustration) – as well as self-excoriated their own works, viewpoints, styles; promoting a form of self-effacement that passes for honesty (ironically). What should we be laughing at? Collectors (or really really really rich people)? Dealers (again, really rich people or delightfully deluded dilettants and intellectuals) or artists? Art is, by and large, an unregulated amorphous form of capitalism that mixes up every political and religious and social viewpoint there is. Powhida is pointing out the obvious to folks who (like me) enjoy seeing it pointed out (and well done) and who need to see the obvious because they don’t understand, as you seem to desire “a deeper” consciousness.

  7. John Ruskin had this to say about the English art of his day, “Cattle-pieces and sea-pieces and fruit-pieces and family-pieces, the eternal brown cows in ditches, and white sails in squalls, and sliced lemons in saucers, and foolish faces in simpers.”

  8. I “clicked to enlarge” and got an image that is the same size… didn’t get me any closer… didn’t show me anything more clearly…I was duped…score one for satire…now what?

  9. Yes it’s all true and Powhida’s work though well done and engagings it needs to go beyond criticism of a time, place and certain set of circumstances if it is to age well. I remember similar work in the early 90’s post art world crash . I remember when 30 galleries closed in one week. There was a lot of work in alternative spaces that critiqued the failures and excesses of the Art World. Much of it came across as shrill strident , made by bitter academics often cloaked by poorly adapted Semiotics and other French critical theory. Once the market got back on it’s feet by about 1994 , it was soon forgotten. One thing from this time that stood out was most Art Sucks by Charlie Finch. This book is brazen, grotesque and unflinching. Pig Magazine put out by Eric Oppenheim (son of Dennis) and David Kelleran was also fun , it had work by young and then unknown Elizabeth Peyton and others who are now well known. Like Pig Powhida’s work needs to be more than Bushwick critque circa 2013 if it’s to be more than an amusing time capsule. I like Powhida’s work and agree with most of what he says, however it has to be less journalistic and more unstuck in time ( Slaughter House 5 ) . One artist who did do this for me issue Mark Lombardi. Although very much about his exhaustively and obsessively about time , his work is also engaging and compelling now. One thing that Lombardi did do was deal with things that were outside the Art World. Although intimately acquainted with contemporary art through his previous career as a curator at the de Menil Collection in Texas, he went beyond the art world and into the corridors of power so deeply and throughly that some speculated his death was assassination rather than a suicide.

  10. LIghten up! While in London for Frieze this October take a breather from battery white cubicles take a walk with Shoreditch Street Art Tours, recharge those drained art enjoyment cells. (www.shoreditchstreetrarttours.co.uk)

  11. This piece really drew and held my attention, not just for the message but for Powhida’s level of craft (which is getting missed here). It’s a really delicate painting with excellent lettering.

  12. Powhida certainly has his shtick down….but the trompe l’oeil paper thing is getting a wee bit stale for these eyes. His work is as cynical and lacking in generosity as most of the art-product he lampoons. He’s a smart guy, it’s sharp commentary, pretty decent satire, but that’s about it.

  13. Powhida is trying to cash in you can’t really blame the guy can you? Art these days is a commodity. I.e Damien Hirst

  14. he should have included in the ‘subjective classification’ painting a tiny version of the very painting itself: there’s a lot of art about the artworld. (and in that tiny version would be an even tinier version of the painting about the artworld, and in that one… disappearing into infiinity).

    i always found the least captivating songs were the ones about the songwriter songwriting his song and singing his song….

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