Bill by Bill signals a radical point of departure for William Powhida. The exhibition marks the first time that the artist has fabricated works to accompany his trompe l’oeil text based paintings. Exploring a range of art movements and styles from Post-Minimalism to taxidermy, Powhida presents a dialogue based on the reciprocity between critique and production.
The decision to do Bill by Bill came out of a long period of introspection following my last show Derivatives at Postmasters Gallery in the fall of 2011. I was working on a large-scale drawing based on Matt Taibbi’s book Griftopia when Occupy Wall Street erupted in Zuccotti Park. I found working in isolation on a drawing about the intersection between politics and finance that precipitated the Subprime mortgage crisis and resulting recession while a vibrant protest was taking place in public on the streets of lower Manhattan to be incredibly frustrating. The OWS protests suddenly made clear to me the disconnect between individual political art and direct action. In the new year, I began attending OWS Arts and Labor meetings in Midtown Manhattan in a public-private atrium.
While the meetings were initially fascinating, I eventually found that the group could only agree on three major areas; intern rights, labor unions and alternative economies. I didn’t feel like my particular areas of interest in the relationship between income inequality and the growth of the Contemporary art market was shared by the group. To be fair, I didn’t quite know how to address the issue within the context of that particular OWS working group.
In the spring of 2012 at the Armory Show, the OWS Occupy Museums group held a protest called Fair Art Exchange on the grounds outside the fair. Here, Noah Fischer, Tal Beery, Blithe Riley and other artists/activists engaged the public by asking them to consider alternatives to the high prices of artworks by trading personal items of value for small works. They also attempted to stage their alternative fair at Frieze in May, but were kept off the property by security.
The contrast between the art being offered inside Armory, Frieze, NADA, and a host of attendant satellite fairs and the efforts of Occupy Museums couldn’t have been starker. The art at Frieze, in its enormous tent on a physically isolated island with a $40 entrance fee, crystallized a feeling about a developing trend I had been observing for many years, but really saw take hold at MoMA PS1’s Greater New York show in 2010. The exhibition marked a conservative shift towards l’art pour l’art reflected in works about process, materiality and formal aesthetic concerns often expressed through abstraction. Many of the works present at Frieze in 2012 only deepened this feeling of a divergence in art from the external world back towards its own internal properties.
To me, this was a kind of announcement that not only had the art market disengaged completely from the stark economic reality of income inequality and recession, but that artists were re-embracing the Modernist notion of autonomy. This shift seemed to be a conservative move albeit under the guise of once radical aesthetic practices, and I found it to be embarrassing, both as a method of artistic production, and in its reception by wealthy collectors. I wondered if the work, often abstract and purposely limited to formal interplay between process and a few formal elements, was being embraced for its lack of content functioning closer to design and fashion than art. I realized it’s a tricky distinction, but there is a sense that an enduring value of art lies in its ability to convey symbolic meaning, not just in its physical appearance. At Frieze, I didn’t get the sense that collectors were clamoring to understand concepts and ideas related to the now historical advent of Modernism, but for beautiful objects to fill luxury apartments and private museums.
A very basic question informed my experience of looking at the art at Frieze: “Who is this for?” Considering the phenomenal prices and the overt emphasis on form, it seemed the majority of the art was designed to appeal to the collector class without offering any significant challenge to their values nor to the development of art. So much of the work seemed to offer style as content and visual pleasure as the primary experience. While there is no art without a form, the relationship between concept and form seemed to have skewed heavily towards the latter, leaving little for one to think about beside decoration.
I left New York in mid-June of 2012 for a residency at the Headlands in Marin County with these ideas about how we, the art community, value art. I had been developing preliminary lists of different criteria for the production and reception of art, as well as mapping different categories of artistic production. The proliferation of art fairs and access to hundreds of shows in New York had not shown me a radically experimental art world, but one rooted in formulaic variations and reiteration of received ideas that seemed geared towards the tastes and preferences of the collector class. This seemed at odds with the politics of economic austerity that dominated headlines.
At the Headlands, I intended to use my six-week residency to gain some distance from the troubling climate in New York and engage the other residents in discussion about the ways in which we value art. It became clear that other residents were less interested in a meta-conversation about art, and to be fair, may have been skeptical of my intentions for any information they shared. We had one informal discussion about our own criteria for evaluating art that was interesting, but I left the discussion feeling as if I were posing a question that wouldn’t be helpful for artists by making them self-conscious about their practices. It was during the first week of the residency during a phone call with Charlie James that I proposed the idea of doing a show entirely of fabricated objects supported by text-based rationales for each work. Instead of holding any more group discussions, I generally spoke with the other residents informally about art, which both informed and challenged the development of my ideas for what would become Bill by Bill.
Upon my return to New York in August, a friend shared an essay Neo-modern by David Geers that had been published in October in the fall of 2011. The essay lucidly articulated what I had been thinking about regarding the conservative trend towards l’art pour l’art. The text was crucial in confirming my feelings that the Contemporary art favored by the market was indeed a conservative re-entrenchment into strategies and styles of autonomous art of Modernism, but without the radical intentions. As Hal Foster said in his recent review of Inventing Abstraction at MoMA, “nothing can be world-historical twice.” What we were witnessing was something of the “infinite return” of a style lacking the very substance that made it radical, and now reified what made abstraction different and challenging to bourgeois values. In short, what was once a radical break from representation towards a totalizing aesthetic program, to compete in a sense with Capitalism, had now become a stylistic mannerism for producing luxury art objects.
In the paradigm of Post-Modernism, it is only logical that, eventually, artists will appropriate the language of Modernism in its entirety without the explicit ironic juxtapositions of abstraction and representation. There is a very palpable fatigue in the art world and society with the demands of self-awareness, often expressed as a disdain for irony and a desire for sincerity, authenticity and likely honesty. The immediacy of Modernism and its refutation of language seems to offer a possible solution, except that it seems more like a capitulation or retreat rather than an expansion of the possibilities of art. In Rosalind Krauss’s seminal 1979 essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field, she articulates the new possibilities created for defining art after Minimalism. The trajectory I’ve been discussing seems to be the opposite: object-making in a retracted field, where the clarity of artistic boundaries with a limited number of variables has become a primary concern.
As I began work in earnest on Bill by Bill, I was very conscious that many of the artists I knew and knew of, including the ones I worked with at the Headlands, were not cynically producing luxury objects for the art market. I wanted to approach the process of fabricating works from a position of respect for their practice, but without deference, so I might ask questions through each work in the show about the value of art both in production and reception. Each work in the show became something like a Socratic dialogue with the fabricators and collaborators I worked with creating a reciprocity between critique and production. I incorporated the feedback from realizing each work into the accompanying text-based painting. This process required a less sensationalist narrative voice as I attempted to make each work both plausible as an example of certain trope or style and a meaningful critique of the relationship between art and wealth.
A Taxidermied Animal
This particular piece, along with the Neo-Expressionist painting, were attempts to keep the show from being entirely a critique of Neomodern tendencies in Contemporary art. I also wanted to look at some representational tropes that are common in the art market. Artists like Damien Hirst and Maurizio Cattelan have made spectacular use of taxidermied, preserved or fabricated animals in their work and carved a market niche to be filled with stuffed animals. Specifically, though, I was struck by a taxidermied pony at Pulse New York in 2012 by an artist named Tinkebell whose piece was ostensibly a commentary on social hypocrisy, which demands the ethical treatment of animals but sanctions industrial-scale slaughter for food production. Tinkebell put some cartoon features on the pony, which I found inane and more of a comment on the relationship between art and the collector class. Ponies are for wealthy children. In fabricating something for LA, I was fascinated by the presence of wild coyotes in the city, who sometimes eat small dogs. I recalled a headline about Ozzy Osbourne’s Pomeranian being devoured. Initially I felt like the coyote might suggest the predatory relationship between art and collectors: commodities for omnivorous consumption (coyotes will eat anything). I learned more about coyotes after speaking with a taxidermist, and it became apparent to me that they functioned more like artists. The population of coyotes is growing despite shrinking habitats and the fiercely territorial animals who kill each other fighting for limited resources. Coyotes are their own leading cause of death. The connection to Joseph Beuys is also relevant, as he shared a gallery with a live coyote for days- this coyote was an imitation of life, energy, and the danger of art. As a contemporary representation of the avant-garde, it is safely crated for easy transportation, display, and storage.
A Geometric Hard-Edge ‘Abstract’ Shapes in a Flat Pictorial Plane
Before the initial fabrications for the show began, I needed to create something in the studio that was outside of my current practice that relied more on my visual background as a painter. To engage in a critique of formal tendencies in contemporary art, I had to remind myself if there was any there. The panel is a direct translation of an income distribution graph as a formal abstraction. It’s not particularly successful in achieving flat, precisionist shapes, but it forced me to consider the material and physical processes that each fabrication would require, including the necessity of specialized, skilled and unskilled labor for each type of work. I am totally responsible for this particular work, which feels like a relic from a 70’s board room.
Some DIY Informalism
I live in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which is a rapidly gentrifying community populated by many different ethnic groups. One of the common links within the community is income. It is still a relatively low-income area populated by the working poor and working class, including most of the artists I know. When I moved here in 2008, I expected to find an artistic community engaged in experimental practices and pursuing new directions in art. I hoped for something radical, but I encountered a rather conservative group of painters and sculptors working in different strains of Neomodernism who were using terms like “provisional” and “casual” to discuss their work. My internal shorthand for the work became “informalism,” which was in no way at odds with the market’s increasing fascination with Neo-modernism in general. It seems the market’s shift towards overly formal work may have helped encourage this trend. The three “informalisms” in Bill by Bill are in part an attempt to create what artist Christopher K. Ho has termed “modest Bushwick abstraction” and linked to a kind of Clintonian political neutrality of privilege that our generation experienced outside of New York in the mid- to late-nineties. In an essay entitled The Clinton Crew: Privileged White Art, Ho tries to articulate how the social and political climate of the late 90’s produced such a relatively conservative group of artists interested in autonomous, formal artistic practices, while being fundamentally decent people. I know many artists who have found agency and self-definition in these practices, but like Ho, I find the work needs to do more than merely “good” in the tradition of Clement Greenberg’s Modernist painting.
A Taxonomy of Objects on a Shelf
“Put it on a shelf,” “Put a bird on it,” “Put it in a bucket.” There are certain moves that artists start to make en masse that suggest a zeitgeist in the art world, and putting an arrangement of objects on a shelf or perhaps a low platform is one that has popped up in art fairs and biennials with increasing frequency. While artists like Rachel Harrison and Haim Steinback have been arranging found and handmade objects on shelves for years, the practice has really taken hold and gained its own discourse around taxonomy (the study of the order and classification of things) possibly appealing to an ontological interest in objects. I’ve seen taxonomies of purely abstract forms as well as quasi-scientific arrangements of rocks and soil suggesting to think deeply about rocks and soil, but mostly to consider their formal arrangement. My wife makes ceramics, so I asked her to fabricate the most basic geometric solids art students are taught to recognize, which also reference the fundamental elements of art that students are taught in formalized (and standardized) BFA programs. Putting these on a shelf seemed to be an appropriate way of thinking about where all of the tropes and iterations begin: in expensive art schools. Also, as my wife can attest, ceramics are having a surge in the art market. She makes beautiful objects that reject purely formal readings, which is why she consented to fabricate these abstract forms. I don’t think Ikea has any feelings either way about its role in producing the shelf.
Some Shiny Objects
This was one of the first tropes that I wanted to include in the show, shiny objects had become a personal shorthand for me for the relationship between art and income inequality. The biggest offender in my mind has been Jeff Koons and his shiny balloon animals, which I have tackled in other works including my previous show with Charlie James in 2009. More recently, highly reflective forms and materials have spread throughout the artworld becoming a signifier for expensive art, whether its Jacob Kassay’s silver-plated monochromes or Wade Guyton’s mirrored U-shaped sculptures. It’s not only the territory of Koons, Kapoor and Hirst, but more “serious” artists working without the irony of say, a diamond encrusted skull. Unfortunately, the process of working with metal and finishing is exceedingly expensive, so I had an assistant create something vaguely geometric based on some sketches I did on the studio wall and focused on the arrangement of the pentagons on a mirrored surface. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking about a question someone asked at a panel in Bushwick, “Is there a Capitalist aesthetic?” If there is, it’s probably the shiny object.
A Hypothetical Word or Phrase in Neon
While it’s an accepted truism that there is nothing new to be done in art, newness and originality are still central criteria for how art is valued. It is possible to accept the premise that there really isn’t anything new to do and simultaneously expect the artist to do something new. It seems that doing something “different” is the new criteria for acknowledging this paradoxical position. Enter neon, a commercially fabricated medium that unlike painting, which at least proposes the infinite variation of the artist’s hand, shares an industrial uniformity, thus placing the novelty of the art on a clever turn of phrase. Artist Jayson Musson, as Internet persona Hennessey Youngman, articulated this particular condition in a video about Bruce Nauman “owning neon” among other ideas, that are constantly revived by other artists, in part, for their very history as accepted art propositions. Youngman hilariously decries the lack of originality within art, which begs the question, “what is more important, originality or continuity?” As the preponderance of neon art as evidence suggests, what we can immediately recognize as art and being able to place into a historical tradition may be far more important, at least to the market. At it’s best, an artist like Glenn Ligon can elevate the tradition with powerful identity politics and formal inversions of light and shadow. At it’s worst, Terence Koh can simply put the word “desire” on the wall in his signature black-and-white style and make yet another example of the convention.
A Post Minimalism
This sculpture was one of the ideas that developed initially at the Headlands, thinking about the prevalence of posts, columns, mounds and other post minimal sculptures in Contemporary art. In its first iteration, I was hoping to make something to link the column to a kind of historical Classicism, but as the show evolved, I found it to be an opportunity to create a correlation between the growth of income inequality and the return of Neomodernism. In the accompanying panel, I was thinking about a critical statement by Roberta Smith who described a lot of recent art as being Post-Minimal, which is a strain of Neomodernism. Working with a sculptor named John Powers, I wanted to create what Smith called a “squeaky-clean, decorous object.” In John’s studio, I functioned as something like an assistant: I spent hours spray-finishing the surface of each column. I had to agree to pay John with art after it was clear it would take much longer than eight hours to achieve the desired finish. At a commercial rate, each column would have cost at least $1,500 for the finish alone. As with the rest of the works in the show, my working relationship with John and our dialogue during the production of the piece found its way into the text. Working largely with other artists (instead of commercial fabricators) is one of the reasons I was able to afford to create the works and make them plausible as art.
Featured image: William Powhida, Some Shiny Objects, mirror, nickel-plated drywall studs, 48” x 48” x 30”, 2013
All images courtesy of the artist