Derivatives: An Interview with William Powhida

by Will Brand on November 8, 2011 · 4 comments Interview

William Powhida, What do Prices Reflect, 2011, Graphite, colored pencil and watercolor on paper, 20 x 16 inches; William Powhida, Things I Don't Get, 2011, Graphite, colored pencil and watercolor on paper, 19 x 15 inches

WP: Then there's two drawings, a pair. With one of the drawings, the idea is, this is available on my website, you can download it and you'll own what I own if it were to sell, which is the best JPEG I have of it. It's kind of riffing on the idea of copyright and ownership.  That's sort of my relationship with art – imagery and not really objects.

The second one is sort of explaining how you could drive up the value of a piece, like if you want to take it to auction, sell it, have an anonymous buyer pay whatever you want for it — you could set your own price, basically.

WB: This is all about making more money off the same number of objects by layering smarter ideas on top. I mean, I feel like artists haven't really challenged the idea that if there's an art object, then you can sell that object in its entirety and in perpetuity, and that's it. There could be no discussion of anything more complicated than that, despite the fact that actually, the financiers buying art would certainly understand you could sell the same object in a million ways. You could sell futures. You could sell options. You could sell this along with a check to the collector for however much they buy it for and then charge them a premium for that option.

WP: Early on, before I really even understood what an option is – treating it like a real derivative and making it a contract between two parties on the change in value – my JV attempt at that was to say,  Look, I will trade you this work of art — you can fucking take it – but on the condition that I get half the resale value should you take it to auction. That's a gamble, because it could be worth jackshit, but I think we all recognize most art is a lotto ticket at best in terms of appreciating.

Installation of Exit Interview, 2011, Single channel video, Run time: 6:43 mins

WP: The video in the back of the exhibition (Exit Interview) is sort of an exit interview with the character from the summer show, just asking about his plans, seeing what he's going to do. I found him to be an excellent voice of potentially the 1% speaking. I might have it so that if you were casually reading this stuff, you'd hear that voice in the back, more of a ghost presence than a real physical presence.

WB: The way you're talking about it, it sounds like a nod to your own Chelsea gallery success.

WP: In terms of the show, there were a number of layers I was trying to hit on some level, one of those being a commentary on careerism. Like, even having the announcement with my name attached to Marlborough and what that means in a career sense, and how galleries are created around artists. Like Rashaad [Newsome], I don't know if I love his work, I've talked to him briefly and he seems like a nice guy, it's not anything personal, but he's doing a serious art career with them, whereas I always knew it would be a one-off.

WB: Why? What was the setup?

WP: It was during the show at Postmaster's with the art world demons thing — spring 2010. Tom Sanford was like, “My friends Eric and Max want to meet you, they'd like to come see the show,” and then a couple of hours before they showed up, he said, “Oh, and Eric's director of Marlborough, don't hold that against him.” (laughter) So I'm like, what is this? I was suspect of their motives. So we talked and they said, “We should do a project together.” Their initial pitch was, let's do something fun, do something crazy, we can do it in the fall of 2010. But it was too complicated, it wasn't going to work out, so we talked about it through the winter, and then they just totally took it off the table. I think they had some interest in possibly representing me or working with me in the future, but that wasn't something I'd want to do, because they're not a gallery I associate with contemporary art. I know they show some contemporary art, but it's very commercial. I wasn't a fan of their art. Even though they're pitching a change, it's the kind of art and corporate mentality where it would seem ludicrous for me to show with them. That was the whole point of doing a project with them, that it would seem absurd to anyone familiar with my work. Of course, if you don't know my work, it doesn't matter.

WB: It's great that they did that knowing full well that you're heavily invested in being against them.

WP: Yeah, I admire Eric and Max for at least trying to take that risk. We were wondering how people would react to it, and I was trying to prep them that it was probably going to be horribly received by a lot of people – it's pretty hideous, I'm offering next to nothing, I'm an actor who doesn't have a script, just a vague idea of what's supposed to happen everyday, and a character he made for a video in LA based on my paintings. We have that, and a painting by Tom Sanford.

WB: So why Tom Sanford?

WP: Tom and I actually collaborated back in 2008. He painted a poster for my show where POWHIDA tries to be a rock star because he's sick of the art world. Tom painted the poster for that, it was pretty stupid and pretty fun. Tom deals in what he calls a Mad Magazine Marxism. We represent our ideas of satire completely differently, but he's got a sense of humor. He's the kind of guy who doesn't give a shit about what you say about him as long as you say his name before you say it: when Christian [Viveros-Fauné] called him one of the three shittiest painters of the 2000s, he was like, that's high praise. He was really pleased with that. Whatever criticism you might level at Tom for that, he's still in the art world, making the paintings he wants to make, which I admire. He's somebody who has some self-awareness about his position, however ostracized and not part of the acceptable cannon of painting it is. There's a grossness to his work which I kind of enjoy. So he was right on board with the idea of ghost painting this thing, being hired to manufacture a POWHIDA.

WB: Did you sell it?

WP: They sold it. They actually sold it for $18,000. Which is kind of shocking, since it has been universally hailed as a hideous painting. But it was perfect – this is exactly what should on the wall behind this guy as he has his personal meltdown tour. The show continued for another week and a half, but it might as well have stopped after that.

  • Todd Chilton

    Can you make a single-page version of this? Thanks!

  • walter

    this is incomprehensible, and unlikely to have any practical effect — just like most contemporary art!

    • Will Brand

      Dude you write about art all day and this is the best you got?

      • Will Brand

        More substantially: 
        Of course Powhida’s show is “unlikely to have any practical effect”. Everyone from Picabia to Oscar Wilde has called art useless, and most of them have recognized that this is not a definitive fault. There exist reams of text on the topic of why contemporary art is so useless, if you’re interested, though I get that understanding might lack the self-satisfaction of contempt. In any case, I can recommend a number of good design blogs if that’s what you’re looking for. 

        Besides which, Powhida spends a large part of the interview you’re commenting on saying explicitly that his art is unlikely to have any practical effect. He says that he ”doesn’t know what to do”, that “it’s futile”, that “it’ll either be interpolated by the art world and sucked up into the apparatus, or the market just [won't] give a shit”, that “Even if you could identify and articulate the problem exactly, there are still people who would just disagree fundamentally because it doesn’t line up with their ideological position.” He repeatedly mentions the circularity of the arguments he’s entering into, and the slim chances of changing that. Even if you were to read nothing more than the image at the very beginning of the interview, you would have noticed it’s titled A Continuum of Ideological Futility. 

        I agree that most of Powhida’s subject matter is, in some sense, “incomprehensible”. I think he got that across when he said he ”doesn’t really know how it works”, and when he stated that his goal was “to represent th[at] complexity.” That said, I feel like your comprehension problems might run deeper than that.Is there any particular point in the interview I can clarify? I have seven thousand-odd cut words sitting around in a Google doc, so I can almost certainly shed some light on anything that was left unclear, if you have a specific question.

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