Home Visual Arts William Powhida in A Tale of Three Covers

William Powhida in A Tale of Three Covers


This is an uncanny ability, allowing Powhida to function like a street smart devotee of fashionable pessimism, an exceedingly dry fabulist. He creates a vaguely exaggerated, alternate universe that closely approximates the one we experience every day, tweaking it just enough to dislocate our complacency and, like William Burroughs in “Naked Lunch”, reveal “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”.

On the November Rail cover he is engaged in direct advocacy and activism, not the random, casual fantasy or humorous self promotion of earlier outings. The enormity of the New Museum’s transgression does not elicit an alternate narrative, just a clear presentation of facts, of the interlocking tentacles that reveal this insidious art world mafia. Like others who were aghast at the announcement of plans to mount an exhibition in March 2010 drawn solely from the collection of Dakis Joannou and curated by acolyte/artist/court jester Jeff Koons, Powhida seems offended by the unrepentant “insiderness” of it all, the stench of clubhouse politics, the obvious conflicts of interest. It drove him to compose this graphic scrawl of protest.

Something seems awry when four of Gavin Brown’s artists have been given shows at the New Museum over the last two years. When associate curator Massimiliano Gioni is not just a New Museum employee but has also worked directly for Joannou, and is responsible for the current Urs Fischer show (an artist represented by Brown and heavily collected by Joannou). When Joannou’s prospective curator, Koons, also has 40 works in the collection. When Joannou is a trustee of the museum, helping to raise funds, even if not contributing directly to the actual expense of exhibiting his collection. When Joannou entertains them all in his private museum on Hydra, where they get to cheer themselves silly while gorging on a dead shark. It all reeks of gratuitous elitism and feels tastelessly incestuous.

Many voices were raised in howls of execration over the New Museum’s decision, including Tyler Green in Modern Art Notes and James Wagner, but also in the NY Times and other sources outside the blogosphere. However, the great advantage Powhida has over all these wordsmiths is his ability to create bitingly powerful graphics, a potent caricature of corruption. He not only names names but also visually implicates the rascals in all their shameless, self absorbed duplicity, and depicts them as they are made to walk the perp walk before our bitter, mocking gaze. It is the propensity of graphic representation, in the great tradition of political caricature, to present an actual, tangible image for our ridicule.

Hence Koons is drawn as Howdy Doody, complete with freckles and cowlick, an amenable dummy for Joannou’s controlling ventriloquist. Brown is shown sneering: “The New Museum does look a little bit like my bitch”. Fischer brattily suggests: “Let’s put a hole in it.” Even the marriage of New Museum curator Laura Hoptman to Brown artist Verne Dawson is fronted, for our conjecture and suspicion, as an inside deal. Pompous fop Richard Flood is depicted gushing like a fuddy duddy and offering wine. “Business as Usual” Lisa Phillips is shown defending the sellout while Marcia Tucker, the visionary founder of the New Museum, who wanted her institution to “seek out the best work at its source, rather than only after it has achieved commercial exposure”, is shown watching balefully from the sidelines, and is imagined rolling in her grave.

All in all, it’s a startlingly trenchant and memorable critique, and probably one that could only be effectively delivered via caricature. If the New Museum has committed suicide with banality, Powhida wants us to consider it the banality of evil. He speaks truth to power with an effectiveness that rivals Thomas Nast’s attacks on Tammany Hall in the 1870s/80s, suggesting interesting parallels between the iconic corruption of a figure like Boss Tweed and jargon spouting “mercenary director” Lisa Phillips. For such courageous clairvoyance I can only applaud Powhida, and offer him a heartfelt “Bravo!”.

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