September 7 – October 12, 2019
opening reception, Saturday 6-8pm
Complicities is a show of painfully obvious, politically didactic, research-based, and precisely rendered works on paper. Produced over the last ten months in the wake of the crisis at the Whitney Museum, the work makes visible generalized and abstract systems —investment, real estate, museum boards, private family-owned companies, curation, public policy —illuminating the connections between art and the ruling class.
Over the last decade the need for critical re-evaluations of American social and cultural governance continue to intensify as the degrees and layers of structural, systemic, pragmatic, and opportunistic ‘complicities’ are laid bare. The private and public systems that William Powhida maps out involve a lot of powerful white people. The artist visualizes financial investments in a military and defense conglomerate by four Whitney board members; the corporate web of profit, violations, lobbying, and philanthropy of the Koch Brothers’ sprawling empire; the policies and investments behind developer Stephen A. Ross’s Hudson Yard’s project initiated by former major Michael Bloomberg; laws and executive orders behind privatization since President Reagan; the direct flow of businessman Warren B. Kanders’tear gas to his previous role as a trustee at the Whitney Museum; and the curatorial structure of the Venice Biennale.
The artist has described the resulting works as a form of ‘capitalist realism’ –a data visualization made of charts, diagrams and annotations filled with his exquisite watercolor drawings. He is attempting to put information back into circulation as art– the thing that links all of his subjects together.
Through a companion series of Instagram memes largely drawn from science fiction and horror, the artist comments on the institution of critique – “political art is a joke” – but as Kanders’ resignation from the Whitney Board shows, there are, in fact, ways to engage institutional critique outside of the studio. As the Teargas Biennial essay, the Decolonize this Place protests, and the withdrawal of 9 artists from the Whitney Biennial demonstrate, internal and external pressure can compel institutions to change. Nan Goldin’s efforts and lawsuits, brought by five states, representing thousands of victims, have caused museums to sever ties with the Sacklers and ask existential questions about their relationship with structural inequality.
Artsy’s Nate Freeman recently reminded us that it’s been nearly 10 years since Greek mega-collector Dakis Joannou purchased a $1,000 William Powhida print How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality. It is a drawing “that satirizes the various players in the scandal and maps out all their connections, brutally criticizing the institution and its benefactor. ”Freeman’s observation, beyond suggesting Mr. Joannou has a sense of humor, implies that Powhida’s own complicity in the systems — museums, the art market, social media, white male privilege —undercuts or negates the function of critique. Powhida it would seem, is already bought and compromised.
At the risk of centering structural problems on himself the artist has long been engaged through satire, parody, and self-critique of the problem of his identity as an artist. A crucial aspect of this problem is best articulated by artist Xaviera Simmons, “Understand the historical American narrative and see yourselves within that framework; do the cultural autopsy, name what whiteness is and the centuries of harm it has done; show yourselves to each other and wrestle with the implications of whiteness on canvas, in performance, in front of the camera and definitely in writing; and, most importantly, stop oppressing us through dismissive and condescending words and deeds.”
William Powhida has no illusions that this work will change the systems he inhabits, or save anyone, but he will not be selling any of this work to any of the subjects depicted (sorry, Glenn Furhman!). The artist will make any information about sales that transform art into commodity public upon request and tell you some other things about unpaid labor.