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William Powhida at Lycoming College

Drawing Criticism

March 18, 2012
By MATTHEW PARRISH ( , Williamsport Sun-Gazette

In 2011 alone, artist William Powhida was written up in Art News, The New York Times, Newsweek, Artforum and Art in America.

So, he's kind of a big deal.

And he has an exhibit in the art gallery in Snowden Library at Lycoming College that is on display now until April 1.

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Powhida assured me that when he visits for the opening reception Friday (which begins at 4 p.m.), it will be the artist himself who attends. Normally, whether an artist will be in attendance at his own opening isn't in question, but when it's Powhida, who has sent an actor posing as himself - with a stripper on each arm to boot - to a few events in the past, one can't be certain.

"I've only sent the character out in the world twice, once for a specific show at Marlborough Gallery and recently at an absurd art awards show," Powhida said. "There is no danger of the character showing up with a stripper or anything, although I could easily see that being a performance in and of itself. I'll be coming out personally, although, some people may still find me obnoxious."

Being bold - if not "obnoxious" - is an essential element of the artwork of Powhida, who may be referred to as an investigative journalist or a whistleblower of the art world. The artist has created large, complex drawings and paintings that are critiques of corruption in major art institutions (The New Museum in New York) and events (Art Basel in Miami) as well as the government. He fearlessly names names and calls people out on what he sees as unseemly dealings.

One might think that "insiders" would shun Powhida after these targeted critiques, but he said that it hasn't happened too much and that even if it does, the fight is worth it.

"Being specific with the names of people who are involved in both the financial crisis and the art world is particularly sensitive, but it's definitely work worth doing," Powhida said. "At the height of the New Museum controversy, where I really went into some uncomfortable territory, I was getting invited to openings at the Whitney. Also, I've found that students have been asking me to come lecture and do studio visits at MFA programs more and more."

Museums, however, haven't been so forgiving.

"Where I think I suffer the most is not being invited to participate in museum shows, as they are very concerned about maintaining positive relationships with their trustees and board members," he said. "If that's really the case, then I think I'd rather not work with them anyway, particularly if it limited my work in any way."

Powhida's criticisms are so detailed and his art contains so much text that one might be tempted to call him an art critic as much as an artist.

"I think I'm an art critic who draws and I developed my practice by also actually being a traditional art critic for 3 1/2 years at the Brooklyn Rail," he said. "During that time, I learned to think about art, not just from my own perspective as an artist, but as a critic who creates a product - sometimes a review - in response to someone else's art. It made me think much more deeply about audience and how art communicates. At this point, I'm not offended if people think of my practice as being a form of art criticism first."

This fact makes him a very divisive artist - viewers tend to either love his work or passionately hate it.

"Yes, when people like it, they tend to love it," he said. "When they hate it, they definitely let me know. Some of the comments where people let me know exactly what they think are amazing."

In a truly postmodern move, Powhida incorporates some of the heated criticisms into his work.

"When I announced I was going to show with Postmasters Gallery in New York, we published an alternating selection of love-hate reviews and comments about my work," he said. "The Internet and anonymous comments have provided some real gems. What gets lost is, my work is all about strong reactions and judgements. It would be ridiculous not to expect that people will respond in kind. I'm just glad I've managed to turn that kind of expression into art."

Another element of his work that tends to provoke strong reactions is his frequent use of obscenities.

"It's a class distinction," he said. "By introducing obscenities into the 'fine art' context, I'm able to f*** with the expectation that art is 'refined' or 'good' ... it's a direct, crass way to politicize speech in the drawings. I also think about it a little bit like Lenny Bruce, in that if you say the word enough, it loses it's meaning."

One piece, on display at Lyco, consists of a specific four-letter word repeated over and over again.

"I did one painting, 'You', that was composed entirely with the word 'f***', which I ended up showing to the entire staff at my school," Powhida said. "They thought it was beautiful and one person noted that I'd managed to disassociate the meaning from the word through repetition and color."

Something that many viewers may find surprising about Powhida's work - when one considers it's conceptual nature - is how many traditional, well-drawn faces appear.

"As one professor at Hunter put it, I figured out a use for all the figure drawings classes I had to take," he said. "While I enjoy rendering and drawing, I wouldn't do it for it's own sake."

And despite the fact that the artist's work contains so many references to the art world, he isn't worried about people "not getting it."

"I do a lot of translating and unpacking of art world references keeping the general audience in mind," he said. "Sometimes people have to learn about art to appreciate it."

The artist maintains that art viewers should do their homework, preparing themselves by learning about art history.

"Without a knowledge of minimalism, a lot of work from the '60s can be utterly incomprehensible and boring," he said. "On the other hand, with my work, people can learn from the work itself. With the 'Hooverville' print that I collaborated with Jade Townsend on, I just heard from a collector this weekend that he keeps it in his office and people spend an inordinate amount of time studying the work and learning from it. So much of the specific information is also telling a much more familiar story that people can relate to. I think that happens with a lot of my work. Basically, I try not to limit my work based on what I think my audience may or may not know."

Powhida uses the "story" of the art world - and many of its players - as a system of meaning in a way that classical artists used religion or mythology.

"I often describe the art world as a secular religion, because of the intensity and passion of people's aesthetic and artistic beliefs," he said. "There was a paper I read in college which found that a lot of people compare visiting an art museum with going to a church. Art really has an incredible power. How else would some justify paying $16.6 million dollars for a painting by Gerhard Richter, a living artist? Also, the art world is highly organized around the concentrated wealth and power of the top art collectors and patrons who pay millions for art and fund museums. As it descends from the lofty heights, it starts to resemble high school far more than anything like religion or myth, as youth and style become much more important than price."

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