Art & Vexation: Interview with William Powhida

William Powhida’s text-based drawings* skewer the contemporary art world with relish. From fake Rolling Stone magazine pages to charts explaining economic relationships, or trompe l’oeil pages torn from the notebook of an art-world malcontent, Powhida sticks his finger into the wounds of modern culture. For example, What Do Prices Reflect? pessimistically lists the rationale used to determine an artwork’s financial value: “Whether or not the work will impress your cultured friends…A highly ritualized exercise in shared delusions…The informal collusion of taste in a statistically insignificant % of the population.” By turns sad, true, and laugh-out-loud funny, his schadenfreude-inducing drawings call out the major players, poke fun at the artist as a brand, and divulge the art world’s dirty little secrets. Powhida and I talked this summer at the Headlands Center for the Arts, where he was a resident artist.

William Powhida. Cynical Advice, 2012; Graphite, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper, 15 x 20 in.

Bean Gilsdorf: How does your work start? Where do you begin?

William Powhida: All the drawings are very specific to a theme, often something that is irking me. The hysterical voice that provides the narrative is a way to amplify things that I’m responding to. A lot of the drawings tie into a bigger narrative, and the smaller “list” drawings are more episodic, they start with some aspect of my own practice or my own engagement with the art world. They are a way to think through all of this, it’s like having a character that speaks through the work.

BG: And how much do you script before you draw the final version? Do you have it totally written out or do you play with it as you go?

WP: I do start with a draft, and I also play as I go. I find there’s an arc to the drawings: the drafts are a basic outline, but then as I’m drawing and spending time with each sentence, it morphs and changes from the original draft.

BG: I’m interested in the play that you have with the voices that come out in the lists, where there’s a lot of sarcasm, on the one hand, and then there’s also optimism. The piece called Less is so negative—not that it’s untrue—but then Hope talks about collaboration and engagement…

WP: It’s been changing over the years. The drawings have started to split, like What’s Right with the Art World and What’s Wrong with the Art World. Despite all the ranting and raving, there’s always been this vulnerable part of the voice. I meet people who are terribly optimistic about how the art world works—they’re realistic as well, they don’t deny that a lot of it is crazy—but they still see it as an amazing place to work.

The narrative voice in the list drawings is not objective, because I want the drawings to be the experience of being in somebody’s head and listening to them think about the art world. That also gets articulated in works like the faux magazine covers, as a vehicle to insert myself into this upper echelon of the art world and to critique it. But as the lists have developed, they’ve become a little more rooted in reality. I don’t have to invent as much because it’s actually happening to me. Now it’s a question of trying to find some balance between what I’m actually experiencing in the art world and the things I think are still worth discussing. Whether it’s an effective critique or not I don’t know, but I’m speaking these things out loud so we can talk about them.

William Powhida. Oligopoly (Revised), 2011; Watercolor, acrylic ink, and colored pencil on panel

BG: Do you ever second-guess yourself? Do you ever think, “Oh, I shouldn’t write that?” Have you ever censored yourself?

WP: I haven’t censored myself in terms of any particular drawings but I feel, now, much more sensitive to thinking about the political impact of calling somebody out, and in particular, anybody who is just trying to come up in the art world, even though it’s the same process that I’ve been commenting on the whole time. Because I don’t want it to appear like sour grapes, that’s why it’s aimed at the upper echelon of the art world. I don’t think it’s fair to satirize somebody’s career ascent…I guess that’s a form of censorship. But I do wonder about all the people that I have called out, [laughing] if I’m not on the list for some shows because I’ve offended somebody…

BG: Do you meet the people that you’ve drawn?

WP: On occasion. Jules de Balincourt lives in Bushwick, and we’ve had a number of conversations.  I’ve never met anyone who is straight up hostile. It’s sort of like everyone’s on the clock in their professional roles, and when we’re done, we can hang out…

BG: Like politicians.

WP: Yeah, and when we’re off the clock, there’s a different kind of dialog, usually they understand that it’s framed as art, it’s a kind of fiction or satire, and it’s not a personal thing. It’s rooted in the perception of power structures and the roles that people play. Christian Viveros-Faune is someone that I’ve poked fun at but he completely understands where it comes from and he’s still a supporter of the work. He’s like, I get it.

William Powhida. Less, 2011; Graphite and watercolor on paper, 11 x 14 in.

BG: And, to a certain extent, isn’t it still flattering in a way?—in an “any press is good press” kind of way? People who are in power get a lot of attention, and any attention that they do get reinforces that power structure.

WP: Yes, it can, that’s the downside of it, just saying or evoking the name. That’s why I did the Ars Magica suite, the art world through the lens of ritual or black magic, just naming the name is giving it power. But I’ve always hoped that it wasn’t only a reaffirmation of their power, that there was some sort of critique in it that might be useful. The thing about recognition is that it’s necessary for an artist, too. You’ll see thirty or forty shows in Williamsburg but only a handful will get reviewed, so there’s this process of omission as a critical model. Recognition is a big, needy area that can occupy an artist’s life. I thought there might be something interesting in naming things instead of omitting them, but I’m not trying to reify anyone’s position.

BG: You’re talking about the social, emotional, and economic structures of the art world, and those are complicated, so to have that kind of complexity and clash in the work just mirrors what’s already there.

WP: And also you can hold up a mirror to art world, you can show people this perfect mirror, and they don’t necessarily care. That world has so much power, you know? People can know the things that are wrong in the art world, or that could be changed in a way that it would make it a more interesting place, and it doesn’t matter. There’s a line in one of the drawings, I think it’s, “There’s a difference between knowing shit and making people care about it.” That’s one of the important things about the drawings, they can capture some part of the emotional experience of being an artist.

William Powhida. Hope, 2011; Graphite and watercolor on paper, 11 x 14 in.

BG: But you’ve also worked with groups who do care.

WP: Yes, after the show last October I spent a couple of months going to Arts & Labor meetings through Occupy Wall Street and it was just an incredibly different experience of a kind of critique that’s beginning at the base, that has nothing to do with the existing art world. It’s super challenging, because most of the artists that I know are like, “I don’t know how to engage with that. I’ve done a lot of work to get to this place and although I’m not making any real money, I’m in this system and I can’t just step outside of it and completely demolish it and not consider that I work with an art dealer who’s trying to make a living.”

And we’re not talking about the star system, we’re talking about the middle class of the art world. And now I’m in this place where there is something to lose—a position of recognition, or at least an audience—and it’s hard to step completely outside of that, but there’s still a lot to critique. It’s easy to make a very principled critique when you’re on the outside, but it’s more difficult to do within it. That’s where I have to deal with and embrace all of the contradictions, and talk about them so they’re out there for people to consider.

BG: I once read a great line: “The way to deal with a troublesome outsider is to bring him into the fold.”

WP: Well, that’s also part of the critique of my practice, is that if it’s absorbed into the system or made safe then it loses all power. There’s the assertion that if you’re inside the system then the critique has no power, you’re just a pressure-release valve that lets the steam out. But that’s as dismissive as saying, we’ve bought your work, it’s safe, we’ve allowed you in. I’ve been very conscious about trying to resist certain opportunities that are presented and doing things that subvert those expectations…

BG: And what happens when you do get invited to the Miami Basel VIP parties?

WP: I’m sure I would find the experience kind of deflating. Part of the attraction of that kind of thing is in maintaining the illusion that it’s fun, like, “Look at this fabulous universe that we exist in!” And you get there and it’s just a bunch of boring financial people there who don’t know that much about art, and really well educated people who don’t have as much power as the people who have the cash. I’m hopeful that if I’m invited to do something like a survey show that I would still be able to reflect on the process of it, and the institutional apparatus, and how it feels, and layer that into the narrative so that the work responds to its environment.

*Note: larger images of the works that appear in this interview are available at