William Powhida describes the narrative and use of stylistic tropes behind a selection of panels in his current solo exhibition Bill by Bill at Charlie James Gallery.
The panels in Bill by Bill serve a few purposes in the show from authenticating the objects which are all unsigned products of commercial and collaborative fabrication, to contesting their implicit aesthetic values, to providing a narrative thread. The individual narratives relate the conception and execution of each object in the show, including the material and labor costs associated with each process. Much of the text began first as a kind of insane market-based rationalization for the existence of the object. That gave way to a more intimate, nonfiction account of each work. The specific, repetitive format of the panels is also a comment on the formulaic approach of the tropes represented by the fabrications. The narratives reveal the material and labor costs of the process behind each work along the left margin, while the body of each “page” reflects a small part of the critical inquiry that precipitated each work through a brief summary or reference to a specific text. This aspect of the panel is followed by a single sentence proposal for the object, which served as the starting point for fabrication. The outcome of that process is detailed in the remaining space of the page. Each panel tells a story about the object and the trope or formula it represents, and it is in the relationship between text and image that the critique emerges.
What Kind of Art is That?
In between starting Bill by Bill and finishing the Headlands residency, I collaborated with artist Jade Townsend on a large-scale graphite drawing called Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes that depicts the art world engaged in a battle around some ultimate prize. Jade and I debated the meaning of the central, defensive structure holding a golden egg, but I saw it as symbol of the impossibility of objective truth in an era of relativism. In order to make the drawing, Jade and I created a map of our internal, informal categories and classifications of art in order to identify what claims, values and ideas each faction in the drawing represented. The drawing was a reflection of broad categories and much less focused on individual intentions than our previous work Hooverville. This particular painting is a distillation of some of the categories I discussed with Jade, with whom I collaborated on A (really bad, bad) Neo-expressionist painting.
What Can We Learn About Art?
As I was working on my own criteria and categories for art, the independent journal The Brooklyn Rail, published a series of responses by thirty six critics to a call by Irving Sandler to define the purpose of art criticism. Sandler’s call was in response to a generalized anxiety about the perpetual “crisis of criticism” in the face of a high-powered art market in which capital judgment has sidelined critical judgement. Sotheby’s head Tobias Meyer articulated this when he said, “The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart.” Only capital judgment could explain the commercial success of Dan Colen, whose last solo exhibition in New York was universally panned in an unusual expression of critical solidarity. There wasn’t even the usual contrarian response that agreed with Meyer to explain Colen’s commercial success. In the Rail, as the writers articulated what criticism should be for, I tried to extract the positive assertions about what art might or might not be. I felt that by examining such a wide range of critical voices, I could see contradictions and paradoxes that are far more complex and nuanced than my own particular perspective. It also showed me the way in which a single variable – price – becomes far easier to agree upon than metaphysics, originality, meaning, quality or emotional resonance. For me, the piece became a fulcrum for looking at the validity of the claims, “This is art,” in each of the fabricated works.
Featured image: William Powhida, What Kind of Art is That? (detail), graphite and watercolor on paper, 22” x 15”, 2013