William Powhida Christens the “Overculture”


It’s not often that an art show comes with its own witheringly on-the-button neologism, but this is the case with William Powhida’s jaggedly serrated, caustically hilarious, darkly informative exhibition at Postmasters gallery in Tribeca. Titled simply “Overculture,” this show of 25 paintings, sculptures, drawings, lists, and charts provides a name for the platinum-plated zeitgeist that’s recently been giving the art world’s thinking classes conniptions. To paraphrase Brian Eno, sometimes christening a thing is even more important than inventing it.

A pinpoint exercise in timely taxonomy as well as in plucking ideas from the muddled air, Powhida’s efforts have long lampooned contemporary art’s more absurd pretensions. Even when skewering name-brand artists, curators, collectors, museum directors, and critics (including yours truly), he has routinely diagrammed the tangled webs that neatly network the art game’s players. An equal-opportunity deflator, Powhida has also wickedly exposed power to the thing it loathes: the light of fiery criticism. Like William Hogarth in 18th-century Britain and Ad Reinhardt in the New York of the 1940s and ’50s, the fortysomething Powhida has in due course become the most formidable satirist of our billionaire-dominated, blinged-up, $ellebrity age.

After the post-2008 recession hijacking of art by big money — rumor is, art’s ethics are currently lost somewhere over the Indian Ocean — the Brooklyn contrarian has turned even more rigorous. As most artists and the majority of critics scratch their heads, Powhida has effectively conceptualized several novel ideas and forms to better illustrate our confounded present. In that spirit, Powhida makes art out of the normally utilitarian press release, where he defines “overculture” as “a small cultural group (artists) within the larger culture, often affirming the beliefs or interests of the ruling class (collectors),” and also as “a negative or ambivalent feeling about culture often in relation to socio-economic conditions.” Take away the term’s mock lexicality (itself a parody of artspeak) and you have a staggering précis of today’s top-down creative churn. This is one artist who won’t be mistaking Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” — “I just want a Picasso, in my casa/No, my castle” — as an expression of an underprivileged subculture.

Powhida, ever the showman, provides not one but two exhibitions inside Postmasters’s cavernous space. In the first, he deploys his trademark acerbic wit in the form of graphite on paper drawings that trace schematized intangibles like Value Exchange and Things We Are Outraged By or Concerned About, as well as oil-on-canvas lists of career rules he dryly titles, for instance, How to Make an Auction Ready-Made (among its colorful maxims are “err on the side of too little, it’s never too late for minimalism” and “one more time just a little bigger shinier”). In the second, the artist presents several trompe l’oeil canvases representing heavily redacted or blank pages, as well as a set of realistic aluminum sculptures. Metal sheets of various sizes made to look like giant pieces of crumpled paper, they literalize the frustration that ensues when Powhida’s sardonic postulates, despite their absurdity, are taken seriously.

Powhida’s current show, in fact, has a great deal to do with the disappointment many artists feel today when they con themselves into believing that they should avoid challenging ideas and hew instead to accepted recipes for crafting meaning (read: reflective abstract paintings or yet more titillating pics of girls in their underwear). From the first, elaborate drawing in the exhibition, titled How to Look @ the Contemporary Art-Industrial Complex in America — it reprises the palm-leaf motif and compositional scheme of the relentless Reinhardt in his 1946 cartoon “How to Look at Modern Art in America” — to a gridded color palette the artist dumbly reproduces as a perfect conceptual painting, Powhida foregrounds two key elements as this decade’s potential art lifesavers. These are, first, content, which American artists are finally starting to embrace again after a long period of daft formal copycatting. And, second, the resurgence of biting social commentary, this time marshaled in the service of a renewed idealism. It goes without saying that this period-defining artist and this pioneering show exhibit both in spades.