Art review: William Powhida at the Charlie James Gallery


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William Powhida has an agenda. Many of them, actually. He wants to be a great artist. He wants to be rich and famous. And he wants to remain an earnest outsider, averse to selling out. You can read what he believes, what he laments and what he desperately craves in the painted lists and letters in his savagely funny show at Charlie James.

Accept capitalism, he advises fellow artists in a litany of strategic sales tips. ‘Maintain a vague political subtext.’ ‘Lie about your age. Stay thirty.’ And if all else fails, ‘Just sell your soul to Larry’ -- ruthlessly enterprising dealer Larry Gagosian, that is.


The Brooklyn-based Powhida is an artist as well as a critic, an irresistible double-dipper and ingenious double-crosser. The chief project of his art is the creation and expression of his own persona, a self-aggrandizing self-doubter, in turns irreverent and sycophantic. Powhida has made himself a character in an ongoing parody of the life of an aspiring artist, and gone even further to conceive of an upcoming biopic whose star remains in character as Powhida for press interviews. A convincing trailer for the purported film plays in the gallery. An equally persuasive painted rendering of a magazine spread on the actor is also on view. Authentic and fabricated blur together, the balance ever shifting. Powhida’s work takes the form of drawing, painting, film and installation, but it is essentially an all-embracing performance, one that sustains pitch-perfect tone throughout.

Powhida spoofs the pretentiously earnest artist’s statement in his own scathingly honest version, his voice oscillating between self-righteous, angry and pathetic. He creates a mock press release announcing the acquisition of the artist in his entirety by the Broad Art Foundation.

The text, wry in both concept and execution, reeks of self-congratulatory artspeak. In a letter to L.A. artists, Powhida offers to trade in his New York art career for a West Coast model. He starts off condescendingly, presumptuously, addressing West Coast wannabes from his coveted East Coast perch, but gradually he drops his cover and begs for a chance to resuscitate his dying career among trees, water, sand and mountains.

His hilarious riffs on the contemporary art world are not just verbal treats. They’re visual gems of trompe l’oeil illusionism. Powhida’s lists, rants and manifestoes look like manically filled sheets torn from spiral-bound notebooks, taped to the wall, but they too are performances, skilled masquerades in graphite, watercolor and colored pencil.

Again, Powhida adopts multiple voices at once: that of the urgent young artist eager to do anything to become the next sensation, and that of the traditional still life painter, meticulously rendering one flat object atop another, in the manner of 19th century greats John Frederick Peto and William Harnett.

However much Powhida the character flails in his anxious ambition, Powhida the maker stays well grounded in art historical tradition. He is a social satirist in the manner of Daumier and Hogarth, up-to-date, up-to-speed, up to some pretty cutting commentary. His work shares a bit of common ground with Jim Torok’s cartoon drawings about the artist’s life, and responds directly to the early text paintings of John Baldessari.


Powhida’s ‘Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell (New and Unimproved)’ takes its basic title from Baldessari’s tongue-in-cheek 1966-68 painting recommending the use of light over dark colors, still lifes free of morbid props and the avoidance of cows and hens as subject matter.

To be a successful artist used to be a matter of answering a powerful inner call -- at least according to romanticized myth. All that romance has long been stripped away by the power of the market, the proliferation of MFA programs and any number of other societal forces.

Now, success depends on a canny marketing formula as much as anything else. Savvy, smart and self-reflexive, a pleasure to look at and a hoot to read, Powhida’s work sells itself with a vengeance.

– Leah Ollman

Charlie James Gallery, 975 Chung King Road, L.A., (213) 687-0844, through Dec. 5. Closed Monday and Tuesday.