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Is All the Stuff at Art Fairs the Same-ish?

Detail of William Powhida's "A Subjective Classification of Things" (2013) (all images courtesy the artist and Charlie James Gallery)
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)
Williams Powhida, “A Subjective Classification of Things” (2013) (click to enlarge)
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