Derivatives: An Interview with William Powhida

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

William Powhida, Some Critics, 2011, Graphite, colored pencil and watercolor on paper, 18 x 14 inches

WB: Your stuff, particularly the art world works, are very specific to right now in the art world. How do you think about them aging? In ten or twenty years, do you see them as documents of the time? Or is that completely off to the side, and it's just a matter of your dissent? Is there something unfortunately timeless to this kind of dissent? Do you think these works will be better or worse in ten years?

WP: I think it's a mixture of both. Some of it will be useless, but that obsolescence, like when the names stop mattering, will prove the point in the pieces — like that post-boom odds piece, asking what the chances are of mattering in ten years. They could be like the mythic covers of Artforum. When I was in graduate school, they'd say, “Go look at the covers of Artforum from '70 to '80. You won't be able to find one motherfucker that's still known.” If that's true, then the people will look at the drawings and say, “Who the fuck is that guy? Who the fuck is Assume Vivid Astro Focus”? He's already almost submerged completely; he's probably showing in Italy or something, or he's doing really well in Sweden, I don't know. There is that kind of cycle, and I think some pieces with benefit from that.

But my hope is like, Ad Reinhardt's known for his paintings, and then this scathing letter writing campaign that he had going the whole time, where he was saying, “These dealers are shit hack fucks,” and then he has his cartoons, which are more about berating people for not understanding modernism, or trying to explain it, or even trying to figure it out for himself. They're instructive and interesting.

WB: Loren Munk just had a show, and it was all, say, maps of the Lower East Side, where people had their apartments, where people showed, and so on. It's a historical, research-based thing, but it's also very time-specific — in twenty years, it, too, might be an interesting historical document. Am I completely off my shit if I propose a relationship there?

WP: Actually, [earlier in my career] I hadn't seen the big map paintings that he was doing. We both had work in this big flatfile at [Dam Stuhltrager]. I was starting to do character-based work, and I was flipping through and saw his etchings where he was connecting art people. I thought they really well done, but they were dry, in a way. I wanted some critical edge to it, a story or something funny. At the same time I was seeing Guy Richards Smit's work. He was doing stand-up comedy about the art world, and that was formative for me. And then Jim Torok showing at Peirogi, cartoons about his life, bitching about the world like an angry dude in his chair screaming at his TV, “Fuck the world!” Some of it touched on the art world. I'd say that at that point, right when I got out of grad school, 2002, 2003, there were a lot of artists that had maps or systems, and it was really appealing in the sense that I was only drawing at that point, and sort of involved with storytelling.

WB: What was the work you were showing at that time?

WP: Character-based, personal experience work – Trompe-l’Å“il paintings of collections of things. But the first show didn't have lists or anything — there were approximations of Artforum pages with reviews and fake ads for shows that didn't exist. It was a six-channel narrative where there were different versions of myself arguing with myself. The second show started to have some of the notes and lists, but back then, it was straight personal narrative. There was no level of fictionalization, or stepping outside of my own experience.

  • 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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