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Thursday, January 22, 2009

It's a Lemon After All

I feel like I've been in hiding after Miami since the lemonade stand at Pulse was partially shut down. Jade Townsend and I went down to Miami to sell Lemonade and brown liquor in our signature art cups while bringing the threat of social anarchy to the well-heeled proceedings. Unfortunately, the threat of social anarchy turned into straight up social anarchy when one of our guest artists drank too much of the special brown lemonade (the n' shit part of the operation) and went down for the count, tattooed and shirtless, for three hours in the sun.
As the first day of the Lemonade stand wore on, the sight of our friend Doug, who I tried to partially obscure with a clear plastic chair and my shirt, did not go over well with the authorities at Pulse. Then, at the end of the evening, I emptied the bucket of the day's lemons on the lawn. It added a bit of color and irreverence to the scene without causing any damage This was stupid. We actually gave the grounds crew some cash and apologized. They cleaned up before we got there at 8am.
The next morning, when Jade and I arrived at Pulse, we were told to stop serving the special brown lemonade. We were informed that there was a misunderstanding about the nature of the project. This was bit of a shock since our project description clearly explained the nature of our Lemonade Stand.

Jade Townsend and William Powhida

Lemonade Stand
Represented by Shroeder Romero

Jade Townsend and William Powhida’s Lemonade Crate will serve as an illegal bar at the art fair, where artists, dealers, and the public will be able to stop and share a drink and perhaps some gossip. The artists will also include an expanded lineup of activities and merchandise such as art cups, original t-shirts, custom art fair guides, art buying advice, and counseling for bitter artists and depressed dealers. - from Pulse-art.com
What part of 'illegal bar' did not they not understand? This is pretty clear, they didn't expect to see the cheapest Whiskey we could find in Miami on the stand or a dude passed out in the grass. While I appreciate Pulse's diplomatic efforts to keep us from embarrassing ourselves further, we thought our statement made it clear that we were going to 'share a drink and perhaps some gossip'. Indeed, we heard plenty of gossip and shared several drinks Friday with depressed dealers who hadn't made any sales and were considering their career options. We also provided a great deal of advice and counseling while we tended the stand. It's unfortunate that a little punk spirit elicited a very tight-lipped response from the fair. This is harsh, they were quiet about it and didn't yell at us. Jade and I continued to run the stand like shamed third-graders like two dudes who felt liked shit, explaining that there was no more n'shit, just ice-cold lemonade and ridiculously bad art cups (If anyone has photographs of their art cups, the cheapest original art in Miami, please email them to me.)

In the end, our efforts to subvert the carefully groomed presentation of wealth, power, and taste was relatively minor. As my art dealer Sara Jo Romero put it Saturday afternoon "There are billionaires walking around and there's a shirtless dude with tats passed out in the cafe. Doesn't look good." Despite our initial despondence about being edited, we decided not to pack up the crate and push it down to Scope where our sideshow may have been more appropriate, although I'm not sure we would have been welcomed. We ended up serving a lot of lemonade and having a good time interacting with the humans that approached us in our little patch of grass. I totally understand how a dealer feels, like a goat at petting zoo waiting for some oats. I have no idea what it feels like to invest thousands of dollars and hope for days that it pans out. I only know the stress of the artist praying for a sale. One old dude hung around a bit observing the scene and said "You fellows made my day."
Unfortunatley, my friend Eric Doeringer didn't have much luck in Miami this year after we tried to smuggle him into Pulse as part of our expanded lineup. He was politely asked to relocate he was already told it wasn't cool, but we tried anyway, and was initially let into Scope to sell his bootlegs, but was then quickly asked to leave out of consideration to the dealers. Apparently, Doeringer's reasonable prices were undercutting the $10,000 price point, which should be gone this time next year.

I suppose my ambivalence about the lemonade stand, which Pulse kindly disposed of for us, stems largely from the fact that we were an unpleasant surprise to the fair; that they seemed embarrased. I'm also disappointed in myself and my lack of integrity for caving in without even a fight. I think I muttered something like "fuck that shit, let's bail," before Jade told me to take it easyt. Clearly, I see that we didn't need a dude passed out or have to fling lemons about, but we didn't even try and be an illegal, illegal bar and get shut down or kicked out for real. At least then I wouldn't feel like the yuppie loser that I am, which leads me to Ana Finel Honigman's introduction to our interview with my character, William Powhida.


The Bastard's Studio, 2008

Honigman makes it clear what William Powhida is "a fully formed douche-bag fame-sucking "art star" performance persona straight out of Bret Easton Ellis's oeuvre. His drawings, performances and writings depict Powhida as a mutant toddler who ingests intoxicating substances and spews out emotional crap." ( I can't wait until that description pops up during google searches) Honignman also, and aptly, makes the Ellis connection I have been intentionally mining for the last few years. I included a small portrait of Ellis in my painting, The Bastard's Studio, and have referenced his work in a few other pieces including my Artforum Top Ten drawing. The text from the drawing states:
The different sections of this year's Whitney Biennial; Uncertain Identities and Unfixed Images, Lavish Abandon, Shock and Awe, and Screen Life sound like an introduction to Ellis's last three major novels, American Psycho, Glamorama, and Lunar Park. Whitney curator Chrissie Isles says of the Biennial's themes "in which culture is pre-occupied with the irrational, the religious, the darkm the erotic, and the violent filtered through a flawed sense of beauty." Ironically, it seems Ellis's themes, critically drubbed as brutal mysoginy and shallow beauty, have gained a certain prophetic currency. Shit, it wouldn't be hard to imagine Patrick Bateman resurfacing as an art dealer in Chelsea wearing Becky Smith's head as a hat and no one actually noticing in the sea of young, coked up stock brokers and piles of money.

Top Ten, watercolor and graphite on paper, 2006

Honigman also qoutes Ellis about his last novel, Lunar Park, which is about a Brett Easton Ellis, based on the 'fame sucking douchebag' the author became in the press. "I like the idea of a writer being haunted by his own creation," Bret Easton Ellis explained while promoting his meta-autiobiographical horror story Lunar Park, "especially if the writer resents the way the character defines him." Ellis remains synonymous with the greed and excess of the 80's, but his relevance to the last decade should be immeninetly clear. Having read Lunar Park he clearly resents the way the public and the media confused him with Patrick Bateman creating a third character that is part Ellis and part Batemen. It's obvious that I run that risk as well, if not more so, since there is no Patrick Bateman, only a William Powhida.

flickr photo by Eric Trosko circa 2005 titled "Drunk Bill 2"

It is real risk, considering that my work is often a mirror of the art world and I participate in it and am changed by it. Seriously, I should never hang out with Tom Sanford again, but they say write about what you know. Maybe I'm a method artist. My role in the Lemonade Stand was part of a performance, and the ambiguity between the representation of William Powhida, and the subject, creates an interesting uncertainty about who I am, what I am doing. While I don't particularly want to become the character (I know people who've suffered under Koons, and I watched Schnabel's meltdown on 60 minutes) the uncertainty of identity is what I am interested in beyond the obvious and sometimes funny art world critique. There is also a third voice in my work, the narrator, a tragic (and insane) figure trapped in the studio. The narrator is also unreliable, and can't be trusted, specifically when he is talking about William Powhida or me. Below is the introduction to a piece I recently finished for Golden Handcuffs Review, a literary journal that understands satire, where the narrative voice is full of hyperbole and absurdity.


The rest of the contribution, which you'll have to find Golden Handcuffs to read, elaborates on a very particular formula for literary success. Artistically, developing this narrative voice has been a major aspect of my art, and it is closer to fiction than visual art, if we are making disciplinary distinctions. Writing, fiction and non, has been part of my craft since undergraduateand it became central to my work about five years ago. Developing the narrative voice in my work led to developing a fully-formed douche bag character like William Powhida. I'm not worried about people confusing me with the character, unless I find myself becoming him. I'm still teaching and working in my freezing studio (people are disappointed when there aren't any strippers and coke and I just want heat) and I'm under no illusion that my modest success is permanent. But, I admit, it's the old problem, when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you. I suppose that's why there is so much humor in the work, because there is a lot of ugliness in the work/world. I'm also not a fucking saint; I get way too drunk and do some crazy shit, but I've also realized that no one cares about that narrative. I'm nobody, but it helps me empathize with the character I've created, to make him a believable reflection of various outsized characters in the art world. In the mean time, I get to draw and paint about my frustration, which has to do with life itself, not fame or fortune. Keep it. I'm pissed that I exist, and I'm okay with that.

Now that the art world has entered a more sober period of reflection and President Obama has called on all of us to take responsibility and put awhile childish things, I wonder if there will be room for a mutant toddler like Powhida. That must mean something very different for the real assholes out there like Hirst, Koons, and Murakamim, but perhaps Powhida must die, or travel to the East in search of the inneffable, or quit drinking and go to rehab at Promises. I'm not sure exactly what will happen to Powhida, but he exists somewhere outside of normal time, in a possible future, where the WPA has been restored and artists actually have to work and whose art is judged not by the wealthiest few, but by our new Secretary of the Arts, Anna Wintour (oh shit, something has gone terribly wrong in the new golden age of transparency) I'm pretty certain that I'd be unhappy in my own personal utopia, so there's little doubt that at least my narrator will continue to rant and rave from his windoless cell in Williamsburg; desperate and cold. The project I did for Golden Handcuffs was a warm up and a harbinger of things to come. I've grown to understand that the art world operates on perceptions, and the new image of Chelsea is going to be upright and ethically centered, reducing their economic footprint. I expect there will be a more humble mood, replacing appearances of wealth and taste with that of intelligence and integrity. I say appearances because I don't think we'll see a real shift, just a new attitude to fit in with society and appear relevant. Part of me thinks that if Barack Obama studied the art market, he might vomit on his shoes and call for increased regulation. Remember, it's time for tough choices, and visual art has been the SUV of culture.

Here's some other random thoughts and quick hits about my work and my recent collaboration with Jen Dalton, another self-hating yuppie, Our Condolences: Volume 1 (which is NOT sold out, despite what you may read). We are developing volume 2, and I'm working on one for the small fish in the small pond because I really don't want to just look like an asshole, I must become one.

Aftermath: The Big Sales and Breakout Stars of Art Basel Miami Beach, Culture Vulture, NYmag
Artists William Powhida and Jennifer Dalton Send Their Condolences, Culture Vulture, NYmag
Bryan Hiott connecting my Conditional Painting, 2007 and Robert Morris's Document, 1963.
Modern Art Obsession on Aqua 08. Moa's quick hit on Platform's room at Aqua.
Pulse Quickens on Day Two, Art Info. "Our little artstar" Ack!
Highlighted on Artfoward

Anyway, I'm going to try and finally tackle Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, after Ed Winkleman reminded me that the future is about the rhizome, the great connecting machine, that it's about experimentation, not progress. So, go read The Rumpus or something, my sometimes volunteer assistant Thomas is making lists there.

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