Rudy’s Most Wanted

Steven Powers Is the Latest Celebrity Quality-of-Life Offender

Powers has yet to achieve the notoriety that greeted McGee's recent installation at Jeffrey Deitch's gallery. But he's determined to get art-world respect, as befits a boy from Philadelphia who, in the 10th grade, set out to "create a synthesis between Futura and Diago [sic] Rivera that would be more powerful than either." These days, he'll settle for a movie deal, or at least a dealer willing to show his work.

Not that he hasn't thought about the appropriation issue. "I see a lot of missed opportunities," Powers says. "There are plenty of artists you'll never see in the gallery because they won't play the game. I put on the beret and smock just like everyone else. When I'm creating work, I think of the four white walls and the concrete floor. I don't see anybody working the space better than Barry and Phil [McGee and Frost], and I guarantee that anybody creating work on that par is not going to be denied."

Class privilege is a funny thing. It can blind you to the real reason for your success, and lull you with the illusion of a safety that doesn't exist. Powers seems to have forgotten the fate of DESA, a writer from the cemetery belt between Brooklyn and Queens with much less access to the media. No reporter noticed when DESA was sent up for two years after police assembled a case from photos of his work. Powers could be subject to the same fate despite his Downtown ways, since, like any proper conceptual artist, he has documented his graff. "It's finished," he says (perhaps disingenuously) of his career as ESPO. "It's been over for some time now."

The artist as suspect.
photo: Robin Holland
The artist as suspect.

But keeping the street ESPO-free may not be all the police are after. By insisting for the record that they are conducting "an ongoing investigation," that they searched his apartment "for evidence in an ongoing investigation," and that they won't "comment on an ongoing investigation," the authorities are making sure that this artist lives day and night with a gnawing feeling of uncertainty. And beneath the bravado you'd expect from someone whose official bio boasts that "this is his first book, although not the first time he's been booked," it's fair to say from the look in his eyes that Powers is scared.

He should be—and so should anyone who contemplates dissent. Like the artist Robert Lederman, who suffered dozens of arrests for hectoring the mayor, or the protesters who've been busted for heckling Giuliani at parades, every critic is a potential offender now. If you're going to advocate an idea deemed dangerous—or just make fun of the authorities—you'd better cross at the green, not in between. And if you're not squeaky clean, shut up.

Research: Jason Schwartzberg

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