William Powhida and the Art of Social Commentary


William Powhida doesn’t mince words — especially when it comes to the art world. The Bushwick-based artist has built a career on creating work that lambastes misbehaving dealers, questions museum principles, challenges the economy of art making, and calls out the cattiness within this insular art industry. Now, in his latest exhibition, POWHIDA , which opens tonight at Marlborough Gallery, the artist surmises that we, “may never see an art gallery the same way again.” While this is a bold claim, as of press time, the contents of the exhibition are still shrouded in mystery, with the most tangible work on view being a sleek, Budweiser-stocked beer cooler (perhaps to aid any performative elements?); black leather couches (a nod to Duchamp?); and a glossy portrait of the artist that, given its aesthetic, was presumably painted by someone else (a critique on artists outsourcing their work?).

As an official sponsor of the show, Flavorpill was left wondering what we got ourselves into. However, if the artist’s previous work is any indication, we’re pretty sure the end result will be one of the wittier fuck you’s that Chelsea has seen in a while. We’ll find out when the show opens later today, in the meantime, we caught up with Powhida to talk about art world ills and why he’d rather be drinking than doing this interview.

Flavorpill: Your work began as commentary from the point of view of an outsider. Now that you are more established and showing at a well know gallery how is your work different?

William Powhida: I went to Syracuse and then Hunter College for MFA. I’ve never been an outsider, I just started using my own frustration as an artist as source material. It helped me start to comprehend the incomprehensible. My perspective has developed completely from within the art world, just in poorer, more desperate circles. The outside scares me.

FP: Is anyone in the art world off limits within your work?

WP: Not really, but it’s much harder to criticize or make fun of anyone behind me in the race. It’s not quite as charming.

FP: If the art world is systemically problematic, why participate?

WP: Because the most effective change comes from the participants and stakeholders who actually give a shit. No one outside the art world gives a fuck what we do until well after we are dead… maybe some politicians.

FP: Do you hope that your social commentary will change the way the art world functions?

WP: I have little hope. At best, I’m making art about the pathology of social commentary. It’s too emotive and subjective to promote change.

FP: Who are the worst offenders in the art world?

WP: People with lots of money, little education, and less taste who buy art they hear about from similar people. Or anyone who gives the Rubells a giant discount: “Don’t you know what we can do for your career?” Soak those fuckers.

POWHIDA, Installation View. ©POWHIDA, courtesy Marlborough Chelsea, New York, NY

FP: What should happen to galleries that don’t pay their artists?

WP: In most other industries, businesses that can’t pay their bills usually close. At some point, artists have to stop enabling the behavior or admit they are funding their own vanity exhibitions. A friend of mine recently rationalized not being paid for sales by admitting she would’ve laid out $6,000 just to have a “legit” Chelsea solo show.

FP: You have no problem name-calling — does this extend to all areas of your life?

WP: I try to keep most of the name calling in the work. I don’t walk up to Jules de Balincourt at the coffee shop and say, “What’s up? Did you invent a new shade of green yet?!”

FP: There are accounts — not to mention a movie trailer — of you being a hard drinker with a penchant for women. How much of this is the fictional William Powhida, and how much of it is true?

WP: I’d rather be drinking than answering these questions.

FP: What advice would you give an aspiring artist?

WP: Make your art with at least an awareness of the world outside your studio. Everything must be available to you or you’ll end up making conceptual abstraction in Bushwick.

Main image credit: POWHIDA, Portrait of Genius (detail), 2011. Oil on canvas, 83 x 59″, ©POWHIDA, courtesy Marlborough Chelsea, New York, NY.