May 9, 2013

William Powhida Paints In Earnest


At first glance, William Powhida's new show Bill By Bill at Charlie James Gallery looks like a fairly typical survey of contemporary art.  Just about all of today's most common approaches to object-driven art making are represented.  There's a post-minimalist sculpture, some neo-modernist wall pieces, a hard-edged abstraction, three large digitally printed color field paintings, a neo-expressionist painting, a taxidermied animal, and a neon sign.

At second glance, the show looks like one big joke about the contemporary art world.  Powhida farmed out the making of these 'artworks' to assistants, mimicking popular contemporary tropes.  He then created some of his signature text-based pieces to accompany each of the works, satirically describing the labor (or lack there of) and intellectual rigor (or lack there of) that went into their creation.

William Powhida, Some Asset Class (Digital) Paintings - Color Fields (stretched prints on canvas component), 2013, archival pigment prints on canvas on stretcher bars, dimensions variable.  Photo courtesy of Charlie James Gallery.

William Powhida, Some Asset Class (Digital) Paintings - Color Fields (panel component), 2013, graphite and watercolor on panel, 19 x 15 inches.  Photo courtesy of Charlie James Gallery.

But at third glance (stay with me), Bill By Bill turns out to be an earnest and successful attempt to make  thoughtful, content-driven paintings.  That is, once you realize that the real art in this show is not the fabricated objects on display but Powhida's watercolor text pieces that supplement them.  Well-crafted and explicit in their intent, these paintings are polar opposites of the redundant, boringly vague artworks that they mock.  They depict Powhida's ideas as handwritten texts scrawled across a piece of notebook paper.  The illusion is so satisfying, and the writing so intriguing, you hardly notice that what you are really looking at are representational watercolor paintings created with such care that it's almost sentimental.

Critics of this show have their work cut out for them.  Powhida's art exudes knowingness, as if to say, "I'm aware of everything you might say to critique me and I've already though about it myself."  A literal example of this is found in the piece titled Some Criteria For Evaluation where Powhida offers a list of over 50 questions to ask when evaluating a work of art.  Despite the satirical undertones, the list actually reads like a useful critical tool.  It also lacks the smart-ass asides or sarcastic scratch-outs characteristic of much of the other work.  In a different but similar series of paintings, titled What Can We Learn About Art?, Powhida lists summaries "from 36 critics writing about criticism, condensed into assertions, that are conditional or absolute."  While this piece is obviously more satirical, the result is a list of proverb-like sayings about art that are thought-provoking despite contradicting one another.

William Powhida, What Can We Learn About Art? (panel 1 of 4), 2013, graphite and watercolor on panel, 19 x 15 inches.  Photo courtesy of Charlie James Gallery.

William Powhida, Some Criteria For Evaluation, 2013, graphite and watercolor on paper, 22 x 15 inches.  Photo courtesy of Charlie James Gallery.

These two pieces are good examples of the inquisitive tone Powhida has established in this show.  They also let on to the fact that, despite the posturing, Powhida seems to care very much about the state of contemporary art and to spend a lot of time reading up on the subject.  That being the case, his criticism must come from a place of caring, and with so much of the work in Bill By Bill focused on criticizing painting he may just have a soft spot for the medium.

One of the most entertaining works in the show, titled A (really bad, bad) Neo-Expressionist Painting, depicts a skull in the manner suggested by its name.  Powhida's accompanying text tries to explain the difference between a good bad painting, a bad bad painting, and a really bad bad painting.  About the resulting piece he quips, "I can barely look at it, what have we done?" and "you realize people are going to like these...Fuck."  The piece appears to have sold quickly.

William Powhida, A (really bad, bad) Neo-Expressionist Painting (painting component), 2013, acrylic on linen, 58 x 44 inches.  Photo courtesy of Charlie James Gallery.

William Powhida, A (really bad, bad) Neo-Expressionist Painting (panel component), 2013, graphite and watercolor on panel, 19 x 15 inches.  Photo courtesy of Charlie James Gallery.

In another piece, titled A Geometric Hard-Edge 'Abstract' shapes in a flat pictorial plane, Powhida had the idea "to take my critique of the art market beyond language to the aesthetic level of objects by making a prototype of a flawed idea, art's relationship to income inequality and wealth.  Or this entire show."  The 'purity' of abstract form and color is co-opted to express a literal ideology.  "Does skill or craft matter," he asks?  "Whatever...Let's paint!"

William Powhida, A Geometric Hard-Edge 'Abstract' shapes in a flat pictorial plane (painting component), 2013, acrylic on linen, 58 x 44 inches.  Photo courtesy of Charlie James Gallery.

William Powhida, A Geometric Hard-Edge 'Abstract' shapes in a flat pictorial plane (panel component), 2013, graphite and watercolor on panel, 19 x 15 inches.  Photo courtesy of Charlie James Gallery.

But strip away the humorous premise, the fabricated objects, and the stuffed coyote from Bill By Bill and you end up with a pretty traditional painting show.  In fact, it is really an exhibition of paintings about art - a well-tread theme that Powhida somehow manages to breathe new life into.  One of the lines from What Can We Learn About Art? states: "Art can be about art but meta-art is boring.  Boredom is death."  And yet, this show is far from boring.  Two other lines read: "Art is exciting and provokes fierce, fiery, and intimate emotions" and "Art forces and opinion.  (Asshole)."  Now that is a much better description of what I find so enjoyable about Powhida's work.

William Powhida, A Taxidermied Animal (crate and coyote component), 2013, detail.  Photo courtesy of Charlie James Gallery.

William Powhida, A Taxidermied Animal (panel component), 2013, graphite and watercolor on panel, 19 x 15 inches.  Photo courtesy of Charlie James Gallery.

William Powhida's exhibition Bill By Bill is on view at Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles, CA through June 8, 2013.

(Image at top: Installation view of Bill By Bill.  Photo courtesy of Charlie James Gallery.)

(This article was originally posted on the New American Paintings Blog.  You can view it here.)

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