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07.28.11

An Artist Turns Us All Into Puppets

William Powhida seemed to be the scene's most annoying figure—until it turned out he was played by an actor.

Last night, William Powhida looked set to be the most annoying artist on the scene right now. At the opening of his show at the posh Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea, he arrived in a vintage Mercedes convertible, which he drove straight into the exhibition space. The show is modestly titled “POWHIDA,” and as the artist explained, its splashy opening was supposed to count as the work on display, with his guests as the studio supplies. “Everyone’s invited into the gallery, and they’re all part of the art,” Powhida said, as cameras clicked around him. “We are all creating art right now. Look at all the cameras—this is important.”

An artist doesn’t get more annoying than that. Or wouldn’t, if in fact the man who said those things had been an artist at all. Although only some people knew it at the time—few enough that the New York Observer got it wrong in their blog post—the man at Marlborough was in fact a Hollywood actor, hired by the real William Powhida to play him as a bore and a creep.  “All of Bushwick” knows that the real Powhida is a 34-year-old who teaches high-school art in Brooklyn, according to an insider who let me in on the secret. As the opening took place, Powhida, the artist, was actually off on a residency in Wisconsin, and had been blogging from there about a serious “social drawing project.”

The subterfuge was well done. The fake Powhida was a portrait in clichés—tall and handsome  but also a touch seedy, wearing the sleek suit and shoes of a social climber on Wall Street. As all us dupes stood around gawking, he stepped into a VIP-zone, cordoned off just for him and a few leggy blondes, and proceeded to get drunk from a private fridge at his elbow. (That last bit may not have been acting.)

The only standard “art work” in the show was a garish painting that portrayed the fictional Powhida with an adoring, half-naked muse at his feet and a dove taking flight from his hand. Powhida (or rather, “Powhida”) explained that he had paid another New York artist to make it: “Tom Sanford was my paintbrush,” he said, as annoyingly as ever.

The subterfuge was well done. The fake Powhida was a portrait in clichés—tall and handsome—but also a touch seedy.

It was perfectly clear that all this was pose, but it seemed the posing of the real artist whom we thought we were seeing—someone with as much regard for himself as he had contempt for his guests. For those not in on the trick—as I wasn’t, for about the first hour—“POWHIDA” seemed just another cheap, sub-Warhol satire of the workings of the art system.  The Marlborough press release (now revealed as a theatrical prop) had claimed that “ ‘POWHIDAexplores an array of contemporary sociopolitical and cultural issues germane to the artist’s role in society,” and cited the artist’s “reverence for Duchamp and Warhol.” His art, it went on, “unabashedly turns a mirror on the idiosyncratic machinations of the industry, allowing an established international artist to look at his role from the inside out”—as though all this self-regarding glitz was to be read as a clever and ironic critique of the art world. Whereas it seemed pretty clear, to my pre-disclosure self, that any critique there might be in this “work” was the product of someone desperate to be part of the system, on its terms.  “He’s just a dumb brat manufacturing celebrity for celebrity’s sake—not for art’s sake” say the first notes that I took. And “Powhida is a bad version of this kind of art, the way there are bad versions of cubism... he has genuinely sold out, simply by making bad art he thinks will sell.”

powhida-gopnik-2
Lucy Hogg

If the  “Powhida” persona in Chelsea  was a kind of marionette, with strings that reached to an artist in Sheboygan, everyone else at Marlborough, including irate critics and glomming followers and bored wine-sippers, was a puppet as well, but in a show that was more interesting, by far, than it had started out seeming.

It wasn’t an unsubtle Warholian gesture of artist-as-sold-out-celebrity.   It gave a much sadder, meaner picture of how bankrupt Warhol’s gestures have become—just another commodity to be sold,  with no more “edge” than a bronze stallion or blown-glass ballerina. The fake Powhida’s art was empty and dumb and pretentious, pretending to critique what it was really buying into. The real Powhida’s art work—consisting of the scene at Marlborough, everyone in it and everything about it—was like one of Hogarth’s brutal satires, where no one gets off scot free.  And we would all be part of that work, even after we went home.