December 6, 2009
Tweaking the Big-Money Art World on Its Own Turf
His satirical vision, and that of his collaborator, Jade Townsend: the flashy Art Basel fair as a Hooverville. Soup lines crammed with artists and gallery owners in chunky glasses, curators dressed like prostitutes selling their expertise for $50 a trick — all in the parking lot outside the fortresslike Miami Beach Convention Center, where the main fair takes place and where the richest galleries and artists tend to show.
“The bubble never burst, it just got smaller,” Mr. Powhida, 33, said, standing over the poster-size drawing. “For the people on the outside the oxygen ran out.”
Put another way, he said, “this is about how out of touch the art world is with economic reality.”
Income disparities and class, many in the art world say, are subjects that get short shrift in the contemporary art represented at shows like this one, which cater largely to rich collectors. Over the last two years the Great Recession has seemed almost entirely absent from the thousands of works at Art Basel Miami Beach and most of its offshoots. With a few exceptions — usually art depicting consumerism or the dollar in various forms — the largest economic shock in decades and its fallout seem to have gotten little play at the nation’s most comprehensive contemporary art extravaganza.
Mr. Powhida (pronounced pow-HIGH-da), who lives in Brooklyn, stands out here not only because he is one of the few artists to regularly address these issues, but because he takes them on in the context of this very world. Though he is unassuming in person, he has become known as something of a gadfly in the art establishment, with work that uses humorous text, draftsmanship and careful painting to lampoon some of its biggest stars and institutions.
Last month he drew attention with a drawing that ran on the cover of The Brooklyn Rail, a journal of art and politics, that examined — and attacked — the controversial decision by the New Museum of Contemporary Art to devote a show to the private art collection of one of its trustees. The drawing portrayed the show as cronyism, a charge the museum has denied. It described the trustee, Dakis Joannou, as an “appointer beneficiary,” while Jeff Koons, the superstar artist who is curator of the show and heavily collected by Mr. Joannou, was drawn as a puppet — specifically Howdy Doody.
David W. Kiehl, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, described Mr. Powhida’s work as “sort of a visual, editorial cartoon.”
“He is talking about things that are under cover,” said Mr. Kiehl, adding that he owns several of Mr. Powhida’s pieces. “Things people don’t want to talk about.”
Mr. Powhida’s growing reputation as something between a comedian and a vigilante holds a special challenge: How does an artist who skewers the art market as feudal and celebrity-obsessed deal with his own emerging fame, and the increasing likelihood of rubbing shoulders with the subjects he targets?
“There are a lot of contradictions,” he said.
At the time he was strolling through the convention center, or as he calls it, “the belly of the beast.” Passing works by Mr. Koons and other top earners, Mr. Powhida moved in jerky motions, like a driver unsure whether his car is in first gear or reverse. His body language seemed to ask: Fight or flee?
First he admired. “Is that a Guston?” he said, racing into the McKee Gallery booth, in cargo shorts and a T-shirt to look at an abstract gray-and-white painting by Philip Guston. Later he found inspiration in the presence of a painting by a fellow Brooklynite, Joyce Pensato, who toiled in obscurity for decades.
“I don’t want to blow this place up,” Mr. Powhida said, admitting that he would love to see his own art here as opposed to at Pulse, where his work appeared this year. “A lot of us go back and forth about wanting to destroy this model, and wanting to support it.”
What bothers Mr. Powhida and several others in the art world who declined to be named for fear of offending wealthy collectors is the pre-eminence of money at the expense of work that challenges the artistic and economic status quo. Mr. Powhida described the convention center as a mall for “condo art” — polished works by recognizable names that are the equivalent of a BMW or a Bentley in the driveway.
Mr. Powhida is not comfortable in this world. He was reared in upstate New York by a single mother who paid the bills with a government job, and he has earned his own living for the past decade as an art teacher in some of the toughest public high schools in Brooklyn. He said his artwork brought in only about $50,000 over the past three years, and that he was still repaying his undergraduate loans from Syracuse University.
“What I’m expressing is colored by a deep sense of lack,” Mr. Powhida said. His persona in his art is far more crass than he is, but friends sometimes have to protect him from letting too much anger show through. At one point Jennifer Dalton, who collaborated with Mr. Powhida last year on condolence cards for Art Basel — with lines like “all good things come to an end” — stopped him from cracking jokes about the obvious cosmetic enhancements of a collector who happened to love his work.
And inside the convention center he often seemed repulsed by what he saw: the Jeff Koons painting that he said was probably produced by one of that artist’s 120 assistants; the titillation in a Lisa Yuskavage painting, placed on the edge of a booth to draw people in; the art dealers in Corbusier leather chairs.
Sara Fitzmaurice, a spokeswoman for Art Basel Miami Beach, said the annual fair brings attention to a wide range of artists, includes numerous free events and serves “40,000 art lovers at all levels.”
Jeffrey Deitch, founder of the high-profile New York gallery Deitch Projects, which sponsored a murals project here in addition to its booth, argued that the show’s slick commercialism and the emphasis on celebrity artists simply reflected a broader shift. He described it as “the collapse between the avant-garde and mainstream pop culture.”
He added: “What’s happening is that there is this completely new audience of young people who are coming to art in the way they used to come to rock music or hip-hop. That’s a very positive thing.”
Mr. Powhida questioned the premise. Standing at the Deitch booth, staring at this year’s most discussed item, an equestrian portrait of Michael Jackson by Kehinde Wiley, he called Mr. Deitch “a drug dealer in an ice-cream truck.”
“It’s about selling what you can,” Mr. Powhida said, noting that after years of framing anonymous every-day African-American men with classical grandeur, Mr. Wiley may end up being known for celebrating the King of Pop. “I kind of want to laugh at it,” Mr. Powhida said. “But it’s going to sell for an obscene amount of money.”
On Saturday Mr. Deitch said the portrait had sold for $160,000 to a private museum in Europe. And he smiled at Mr. Powhida’s critique. “The irony is that by exposing art celebrity culture, he’s becoming a celebrity himself,” he said of Mr. Powhida. “So hats off to him.”
Sincere or not, Mr. Powhida’s usual scene looks quite different. One night during the fair he met up with friends at an “art burning” down the block from the Rubell Family Collection/Contemporary Arts Foundation, a museum owned and operated by a wealthy Miami family. About a dozen artists, bloggers and critics — the outsiders of Mr. Powhida’s imagined Hooverville — gathered in a parking lot to toss failed canvases onto a Weber grill while drinking Budweiser. “It’s the zeitgeist,” said someone in the dark. “Destruction and rebuilding.”
But no one there seemed confident that the art world was interested in such change. With collectors starting to spend again at recent art fairs and auctions, even these outsiders predicted that artists and dealers would do whatever they could to prop up the market.
“There is a wish that it would go back to what it was,” Mr. Powhida said, referring to what he saw as a general desire to return to the exuberance of a few years ago. “It ignores the reality that a lot of people are really struggling.”