William, It Was Really Nothing

Brian Droitcour on “POWHIDA” at Marlborough Gallery

Left: Artist Tom Sanford and Malborough Gallery director Eric Gleason. Right: Actor Rick Dacey (middle). (Photos: Brian Droitcour)

I WAS REALLY EXCITED by the chance to publicly trash William Powhida until his assistant told me to go for it. “Great idea,” the mild young man said at the opening of “POWHIDA” at Marlborough Gallery last Wednesday night. “It will help create dialogue.” Buzzkill. In my head I’d been composing the kind of invective that shuts dialogue down. Powhida was, I thought, a mediocre draftsman singularly obsessed with his own career, offering nothing but rarefied op-ed cartoons about the markets and personalities that stand in its way. (He sold a drawing of Miami Beach as a shantytown at the Pulse Art Fair a couple years back.) Yet all around me at Marlborough the choir sang the praises of Saint William. “He’s one of the nicest guys I know,” said Barry Hoggard, co-owner of ArtCat and a longtime collector of Powhida’s work. “He’s from a working-class family in upstate New York. He teaches art at a high school in Bushwick!”

As it turns out, there are two William Powhidas: a genuinely swell guy and a vile public persona. Only one of them was at Marlborough. Around 6:30 PM, a vintage Mercedes convertible pulled into the gallery through the rolling service door. There was a heavyset chauffeur and another man who wore dark sunglasses, seated in the back with a pair of “bimbos.” The man in glasses got out, popped open a bottle of champagne, and posed for photographers in front of giant letters reading POWHIDA, as though he were the eponymous artist. But he was a stunt double. (The real Powhida, Hoggard told me, was drawing with senior citizens in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.)

The false Powhida and his entourage proceeded into the gallery and alighted in the “VIP area,” a couple of black leather couches isolated by ropes and security guards. Behind them loomed Portrait of a Genius, Tom Sanford’s oil caricature of Powhida releasing a dove as a buxom blonde embraced his left leg. It looked like it could have been painted on velvet. “I’m not proud of it,” Sanford said. “Well, no, I am proud.” The performers carried on, drinking and chatting and fiddling histrionically with their mobile devices. Powhida fans smirked knowingly. Marlborough regulars furrowed their brows. “Two worlds collide,” said Eric Gleason, a director at the gallery who organized the show. “We’ll teach them to appreciate this.” (I later read on Artinfo that Marlborough has launched an experimental program to update its image, and Powhida is one of the first artists to help them rebrand.) Could I be taught to appreciate this? Though I’d tried to recalibrate my estimation of Powhida’s work with the evening’s new insights, I couldn’t dissociate the means of expression from the man who chose them. This theatrical parody of the “Warholian” made Powhida, at best, a petty Santiago Sierra. Good intentions lurking in the shadows are not the stuff of an oeuvre. Some of my favorite artists are assholes.

The afterparty at the Mondrian hotel’s penthouse staged the cheesiest fantasies of Big Apple glamour. Just as he had at the Marlborough, the false Powhida lounged on a couch, drinking champagne and fondling girls, but now a dramatic view of Manhattan’s skyline was his photogenic backdrop. The venue brought out the worst in the opening’s two demographics: The Bushwick types enjoyed playing rock stars–and-groupies beyond irony, and the actual rich dudes felt entitled to shove their way to the front of the line for absinthe mojitos. On the rooftop deck, the false Powhida passed me, and I took a stab at playing along: “How does it feel to make it big?” “There’s no pool here,” he said. “You haven’t really made it unless there’s a pool.” It was hard to tell if the slur in his speech was feigned, but his breath certainly smelled tart. He stumbled back inside, and I retreated to the company of my telephone. “I sent my two body men to @Powhida afterparty,” tweeted Magda Sawon, whose Postmasters gallery actually represents Powhida. “Me, I’d rather kill myself thank you very much.” That’s real success.