Outstanding, really. The punch and power of a mark on a page. William Powhida, known for the work created by his alter-ego, also named William Powhida, blends a celebrity’s sense of entitlement with a too smart for his own good attitude problem, much like an old-school criminal mastermind from a Batman comic book. His most recent drawing, How The New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality, is the first in his new series for the Brooklyn Rail. Powhida has just robbed the bank with this new work and is caught in the spotlight…but I’m sure he’s got a couple more tricks up his sleeve.
DG: Did you go to school to become an educator?
WP: No, I just stumbled into it after my first year of graduate school at Hunter. I was definitely not prepared to be a teacher and teaching in Bushwick is radically different from my own high school experience.
DG: Where did you go to high school?
WP: Upstate, New York. Ballston Spa.
DG: That really frames a lot of the ideas that I was thinking about with your work, which I really like. You had a couple of smaller pieces in a show in Bushwick that a friend of mine, John Beeson, helped to curate. It’s interesting that you are an educator. Working with the types of students that you do at Brooklyn Prep, it must influence the drive of your work. The way that the students are aggressively forthright with their personalities, works with the character of the work you create.
WP: (laughs) Yeah. There’s always a few students in my classes who are resistant to education, and actively try and disrupt the entire process. They try and “test you” and see how you will react. If you can’t maintain your composure, they will take over the class. It’s a challenging power struggle. It’s more than how the students act in class, but also how they reflect certain cultural attitudes found in hip hop. I could hear it in the music, and see it in how they challenged the school’s attempt to educate them. At a certain point, that struggle became a motivation in my work. After I graduated from Hunter, I began to ask myself Is this is it? Am I just going to be teaching in a difficult, crazy, and sometimes hostile environment? I’ve learned to accept the differences and not make comparisons based on my cultural experience. We have to teach the students we have, not the memories of a high-school classroom.
In my studio, I am trying to capitalize on controversy, by challenging the establishment. The other day, a small group of seniors were discussing the yearbook. They didn’t want to include the other grades because they wanted the yearbook to only be about them. Listening to them, I could hear that demanding, entitled voice that comes through in my drawings—the one that only wants to satisfy his desires. In my art, I grapple with that attitude encountered as an artist. The drawings, specifically my letters, work on two levels: a ridiculous self-assurance, I’m a genius; and a pathetic, needy voice who might just need a hug.
DG: Well, I haven’t picked up on the pathetic tone…
DG: What it does remind me of is the knowledge of the hierarchical system, the excitement and drive to be a part of the atmosphere of it all, and then the anger of not being included or a part of it at all. Who would be a freshman in the art-world high school ?
WP: I’ve talked a lot about that with my old studio mate, Micheal Waugh. It’s not only freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors; it’s also who are the administrators, the teachers, the custodians…who is the principal? Someone like Chuck Close seems like the principal of the art world. Giving his lessons and support to certain people.
In terms of the hierarchy, high school is a great metaphor because of the cliques that exist. The art world is already divided into unknowns, emerging, established, mid-career, international artists, and according to what graduate program you went to, who you’re friends with and your social pedigree. It’s more like a high-school cafeteria. I’m still sitting with a group of great kids, not particularly popular, but we do alright. Although, my name is getting around the cafeteria, even up to the popular seniors, because of the New Museum drawing. How I respond to that will certainly be interesting, but people always ask me how far I can take this critique, and I tell them as far as they will let me.
During this decade, the tiers and cliques in the art world were pretty clear. Right now, that has become more difficult to define as the money and sales that made it seem like there was a huge clique of really cool rich kids has disappeared. There’s a lot of stories about artists who sold out shows two or three years ago and now haven’t sold a thing.
DG: It seems to also play into the idea of “market value” and what the market is. There are artists who are unbelievable marketers, most likely because they have someone helping them market themselves. The idea of “artist as persona” has changed. How do you feel that your narration in the work relates to the market?
WP: The New Museum drawing has brought up an interesting thing, because I’m trying to make a pure critique of the situation, but it’s still very much tied to who I am—and there’s a lot of self-promotion that goes into that. My work has been a lot about shameless self-promotion and using work to get some of that attention since I don’t have any money behind me. This is it for my studio; doesn’t have very much heat in the winter, and no a/c in the summer, and it’s difficult. So on the one hand, when the New Museum drawing came out I felt a little bit I don’t know how much I should try to capitalize on this myself, beyond what it’s actually doing as a critique of institutional ethics…
DG: But which personality was telling you to do that? The one behind the work, or the personality of the artist making the work? It seems that it would be the character of the work that would be shamelessly promoting the work.
WP: Leah Ollman, who just wrote the piece in the L.A. Times about my show out there (Charlie James Gallery, LA), made a very clear distinction, finally, that there is William Powhida, the maker or “author,” and then there is William Powhida, the “character.” She was great to distinguish that because I have to do that in my studio and daily life. The work goes to extremes with characters jetting off to Aspen, and in my life, I have a five-day a week job and I’m trying to pay rent and make it all work. It’s really difficult. So, that frustration of trying to support myself, definitely, is a source for making the work. In relation to the New Museum drawing, my only sense, as an artist, was that what they are doing is unethical and contradictory to their history. I think I am able to make effective use of the voice in my work and give the criticism a humorous and satirical edge.
DG: As an educator, is your use of voice an attempt to narrate a reality into other peoples’ lives towards a truth you’re seeking? Do you feel that some of your narrations give things more art-historical brevity? As a result of your work are you giving prominence to work that you don’t like?
WP: (huge laughter) That certainly is a risk. I think the market elevated the work I’ve criticized well before I did. That would be based on the assumption that my work is going to be remembered in someway. In much of my work, I’m not criticizing specific works of art, but the public perception of certain artists’ careers like Dana Schutz, Dash Snow, or Jules De Balincourt. I’ve been interested in how the market aggressively makes stars out of artists. It’s not just the art, but the way in which it is framed around the artist’s persona. My intention is to critique how the art market consumes people and turns them into commodities to be traded. I’d like to think my work will be remembered because it calls attention to that system, more than cementing the reputations of these artists. You can look back through issues of Artforum and not recognize any of the artists. As Jerry Saltz has said the art world eats it’s young.
DG: With the creation of the character William Powhida, do you think there will come a point in time that you’ll do your own character assassination?
WP: (laughs) Well, I think that a lot of the work has a built-in character assassination.
DG: I understand that what the character says, may only be part of your demon. It’s a different period of time now in the art world—with receptivity and honesty constructing a more stable ground. It seems that a different truth is coming to the surface.
WP: I hear what you’re saying. A lot of my work drifts towards shallowness and materialism—it’s all about this character. Granted I’ve been trying to use him to reflect back what I’m seeing in the art world, and willing to take certain risks of putting my name on it or creating a character that’s loosely connected to me or very connected to me, not loosely at all. With the New Museum drawing, you’re right…I wanted to do a drawing that wouldn’t just reflect the kind of conditions I find problematic in the art world, but would be a platform for engagement.
DG: It has a potent purpose to it. What will your new voice say?
WP: That’s really the question. I’m meeting with the editors of the Rail tomorrow, because the attention has galvanized them. They’ve been waiting to do something like this. They would like me to do a monthly editorial cartoon. Part of that is, I don’t feel that I’m smart enough (laughs) to identify what the issues are. I don’t think the New Museum drawing would have elicited the kind of reactions it did, unless there wasn’t such a problematic situation. It’s something that we tend to not want to acknowledge about the art world. It’s not something new, but it is something that we tend ignore.
DG: Just to play the other side for a second though, there have been some good shows at the New Museum; Unmonumental for example, and it’s a great home for Rhizome. This is criticism based on one future exhibition. Shouldn’t we cut them some slack?
Doesn’t the New Museum have a responsibility to manage their budget and make decisions to provide for future exhibitions?
WP: I didn’t set out to criticize the New Museum’s entire program. Primarily, I wanted to focus on “The Imaginary Museum” series that violates established ethical standards, and runs so contrary to their history of showing challenging work and engaging the public with interesting programs like Rhizome. I don’t think the New Museum is some monolithic thing that is bent on showing trophy collections like Dakis Joannou’s, but it’s ceding some of the authority and credibility by appearing to be a vanity space for its wealthy patrons.
I’d like to see the Museum show more underrepresented artists and create opportunities for artists who lack economic and commercial support. I think it’s really important to have a space like that in the city so that we can advance different notions of what art is, not just the careers of established, blue-chip artists.
I think it’s the museum’s responsibility to find trustees and patrons who support their legacy of bringing really new art, and by that I mean art that hasn’t been exhibited extensively at art fairs and galleries around the world as in the case of Urs Fischer and Elizabeth Peyton. I think it’s fair to say that the Museum should not allow their financial needs to dictate or unduly influence their curatorial decisions. While there is a glaring lack of public financial support for the arts in general, I believe the New Museum could have used the ethical standards they are dismissing to keep their trustees financial support separate from their exhibition schedule.
It’s that insider behavior that I’m critical of the New Museum for engaging in. I think the New Museum is setting a terrible precedent for other museums who might also be willing to sacrifice their ethical standards to be considered “serious” and/or “sexy” institutions to attract wealthy trustees like Joannou. Really, that’s something about the whole situation that isn’t really talked about. Museums have been in a long period of expansion, partly fueled by the “imaginary economy” of the Bush years. I remember Brett Littman saying how relieved he was that The Drawing Center was not going to relocate or expand so that he could spend his time as director focusing on programming, not fundraising for the next eight years.
DG: The soapbox you’re on right now is intimidating. It’s a leadership role.
WP: It is intimidating. I don’t feel that I have the answers right now. I think there’s a type of ambivalence in the reaction to the drawing. People may disagree with some of it, but they understand it. We know that the art world is composed of a fabric that’s all interwoven, and that some of that fiber is pretty ugly, some of the connections aren’t Kosher. If everything that was entangled, like relationships at the New Museum, were to be straightened out, the art world would probably collapse on itself, and there would be no “art world.” It’s why I chose the Josephine Meckseper quote for the drawing, because we are still so dependent on a very small percentage of wealthy individuals to keep the art world afloat, and in that sense it favors known quantities and certainly makes it hard to push for new art and new ideas, as the New Museum would like us to believe it is offering.
Now that I have the support of the Rail, I feel part of a community that is raising issues for dialog, and I get to participate in a shared leadership role. I get to bring a focus to their concerns as well as my own, which is different from working in the isolation of my studio and my own preoccupations.
All of that, you’re right, I feel a little bit of pressure to identify something else that would…that would cut right to the bone and expose some of the more troubling aspects of the fabric of the art world.
You’re right, though, it is a really interesting platform. The New Museum drawing has had more effect than anything I’ve ever done. It’s a weird feeling to see that and see what a single drawing can do.
BOMB On The Inside is conversation series created by David Goodman that engages artists, curators, gallerists, and visionaries to reveal the dynamism and power of creative thought. This piece was edited with the help of Richard J. Goldstein.