The Art World’s Prankster

“I’m sure somebody could easily do a drawing of me as this celebrity-obsessed whore monster,” said William Powhida, the prankish draftsman who has lately captured the New York art world’s attention with his acerbic and angsty caricatures of the city’s most powerful dealers, collectors and art stars. Sitting on Sunday afternoon in a back room at the Winkleman Gallery in Chelsea, Mr. Powhida said he’s not out to embarrass or expose anyone—just stoke their self-awareness. “I do find a value in that kind of shaking up,” he explained.

In one of his recent drawings, a large-scale depiction of Art Basel Miami as a grotesque carnival, Mr. Powhida brutally details some 50 art-world personalities: downtown dealer Jeffrey Deitch as a geeky cool-hunter, the young curator Shamim Momin as a madam, Village Voice art critic Christian Viveros-Faune as a slouching drunk. Every individual in the piece, which Mr. Powhida drew in collaboration with his friend Jade Townsend, is helpfully identified by name and affiliation in a handwritten key. As far as hostile self-promotional gestures go, the drawing—titled Art Basel Miami Beach Hooverville—is comparable to the breakout 50 Cent single “How to Rob,” in which the rookie rapper dissed several dozen established artists and in so doing got all of them to pay attention to him.

The hyper-detailed Hooverville, passed around on art blogs as a JPEG last week, takes obvious inspiration from Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch but is closer in spirit to the cover of the Green Day album Dookie, which shows the streets of Berkeley, Calif., running with excrement and teeming with degenerates. Like the rest of his recent output, the drawing takes aim with verve and pluck at the art-world power structure that the 33-year-old, Bushwick-based provocateur sees as corrupt, unfair and harmful to artists.

Reaction to Mr. Powhida’s work has been predictably mixed: In various online forums he has been called brave, narcissistic, dull, exploitative, nihilistic, unkind and everything in between. One person Mr. Powhida caricatured in Hooverville, ArtNet editor Walter Robinson, was so angry about his portrayal in the drawing that he took to Facebook after seeing it to say he hated Mr. Powhida and would kill him when he saw him, “if only [he] knew what the little dweeb looks like.”

When I went to see Mr. Powhida, I was expecting a speedy, beefy dude with mean eyes and a punishing buzz cut—a vigilante truth-teller in a world full of careerist glad-handers. Turns out he’s actually kind of a genial weiner: soft-spoken, with glasses, polite salt-and-pepper hair, a black V-neck sweater and loose-fitting blue jeans.

“The value that’s created around art is based on perception, and we don’t really talk about how that’s created, because it’s just a common agreement,” he told me, seriously. “We create brands that we have to elevate and maintain, and one of my questions is, is that good for art?”
Mr. Powhida would probably be happy if his works inspired more reactions like Mr. Robinson’s from the art-world establishment. According to Mr. Robinson, Mr. Powhida emailed him after his retaliatory Facebook post went up and thanked him for it. “He was very happy—he was sending me emails like, ‘Dude, this is a real gift, what you’re saying!’”

A number of people he has gone after in his work, instead of hating him, have actually embraced him and expressed appreciation for what he’s up to. Indeed, over the past six months, Mr. Powhida seems to have won more fans than enemies, and not just among the “yearning masses”—as he calls them in a recent piece—of struggling artists he is fighting for.

Though he’s been on the critic’s radar since his very first gallery exhibition in his early 20s, Mr. Powhida did not become properly famous within the art world until last fall, when he drew a cover for the Brooklyn Rail that highlighted the friendships and professional entanglements at play in the New Museum’s controversial show of works from the private collection of one of its trustees. The drawing, titled, How the New Museum Committed Suicide With Banality, was an immediate sensation, lending an urgency to the scandal over the New Museum’s ethics in a way that the tenacious hand-wringing that had been taking place on art blogs like CultureGrrl and Modern Art Notes could not do.

Then, at the end of January, the New Museum trustee at the center of the controversy, Dakis Joannou, bought a print of Mr. Powhida’s drawing from his New York dealer for $1,500. And a couple of months later, New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz wrote that spotting himself in Hooverville was a wonderful experience. (“It’s always fun to see bigwigs get bitch-slapped, including me!” Mr. Saltz added by phone Monday.)

When I asked the artist Lisa Beck to elaborate on a comment she made recently on the popular blog Art Fag City, she emailed, “I don’t think that the power structure has exactly trembled. … In fact, I know that some of the figures he makes fun of take delight in being included in his work. It’s like being the subject of a roast at Caesar’s—a tribute, or mark of their importance.”

Sitting in the back room of Winkleman Gallery, meanwhile—where he and another artist, Jennifer Dalton, have spent the past month hosting events and discussions about the art market—Mr. Powhida told me he does not know exactly how to respond to enthusiasm from the likes of Mr. Saltz, particularly since he knows it has made some people dismiss him as a mere court jester—an amusement rather than a revolutionary whose activities flatter those in power rather than challenge them.

“I am a little ambivalent about Jerry’s support,” Mr. Powhida said Sunday. “It’s kind of like he’s given me keys to the club. And there’s two things: I can go in and sit down and have a glass of Scotch and laugh and chortle with all the rich folks and powerful people, or I can go in there and break some windows. And I’ll either be kicked out or other people will get in. Maybe I can open the back door.”

Ambivalent though he may be, Mr. Powhida finds himself in a position that has caused him angst as well.

“Somebody said to me recently, ‘You have a leadership role now’—and I don’t feel like I’m trying to lead anyone,” he said. “I threw a brick through the New Museum’s window and I’m not gonna put it back together. I don’t have a new window or a better window that’s gonna replace it yet.”

Late Monday night, after a comment thread on Art Fag City debating his merits got to be more than 50 posts long, Mr. Powhida posted on his personal blog a rant slugged Hooverville Catastrofuck, in which he responded to critics who had accused him of gimmickry, pandering and exploiting the celebrity of others to further his own. At the end of the post, presumably to appease those who had complained that the version of Hooverville that had been going around was too grainy, he placed a high-res scan of the drawing. “Now, here’s a big assed version of Hooverville (click on it and prepare to scroll) where you can go look for yourself and friends,” Mr. Powhida wrote. “Just don’t miss the fact that you are pretty much fucked one way or another whether you’re in this drawing or not.”

The Art World’s Prankster