For this Summer Session we’re thinking about celebrity, and that also means thinking about what it means to both loathe and desire its effects for oneself. There is no denying that the art world is often driven by the forces of celebrity, and William Powhida makes the core of his practice a thorough critique of this system. His work responds to the ambivalent desire for status within an art market where status itself simultaneously legitimizes and undermines critical art.
William Powhida, Cynical Advice, 2012. Graphite, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper, Cynical Advice, 15” x 20”, Graphite, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper, 15 x 20 inches
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 Worldand 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.