Ridgefield >> It is often said that art imitates life and vice versa.
Artist William Powhida has taken our current political and economic situation and projected how it will affect our future. His art reflects the shift in emphasis and influence from the artist to the collector, how money began to drive the art world and everything went haywire.
Powhida’s correlation between the art world and the real world in which we find ourselves these days is frighteningly Orwellian. And makes for a fantastic exhibition.
“William Powhida: After the Contemporary” is currently at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield. Founded in 1964 by Larry Aldrich, a successful fashion designer, philanthropist and part-time Ridgefield resident, he was an art collector who began with Impressionist and Expressionist painters and moved on to contemporary art, which became his passion. Thanks to his generosity both the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art were able to expand their collections.
The Aldrich began its life in a landmark 1783 building on Ridgefield’s historic Main Street. In 2004 the museum moved into its present location – a 17,000 square-foot modernist structure with two floors of exhibition galleries and The Studio, a space for learning and making. The property overlooks a two-acre sculpture garden. It is a jewel of a museum, unique by the fact that it does not house a permanent collection.
“Aldrich believed that a museum’s main mission was to support new work by emerging and mid-career artists,” explains Richard Klein, Exhibitions Director and curator of the current Powhida show. “To that end, he deaccessioned the museum’s collection and put the funds back into the endowment to support works for living artists.”
Klein, who is also involved in administrative duties at the museum, is an artist in his own right. His work has been exhibited widely and is included in numerous public and private collections. He also writes about art and visual culture. He has been in his current position at the Aldrich since 1999 and has been responsible for some of the most original and provocative exhibitions. “After the Contemporary” is the culmination of having followed Powhida’s career for several years.
“This is Bill’s first museum exhibition,” says Klein. “He is an artist in his early 40s whose career really started about fifteen years ago. He was writing for various art publications and had a studio practice that was based on personal narrative about himself and his life – looking at the art world from the inside and using contemporary visual culture and its excesses as subject matter. He has always been on the cutting edge.
“I met him casually and then did a studio visit with him in 2006. I was intrigued with what he was doing. His point of view and commentary fit in so well with what is going on now in the contemporary art market.”
The term contemporary art originated in the late 1940s to describe the art of the day (versus the old masters.) Most of the museums focusing on this type of art were founded in the 1950s and 1960s and had to do with the artists who were still alive and part of the present movement. But the term has taken on a whole new definition thanks to the monetization of art. Can contemporary art be labeled a specific period of art like modern art and what does it suggest about the future of society?
Powhida defines the contemporary era as the years 2000 to 2025. It’s what has happened since 2000 that has fueled this exhibition and he has tackled the events in an unusual way. He wants the observer to suspend belief and pretend it is the year 2050. Now this becomes a retrospective looking back at the contemporary phenomenon.
Klein explains: “The first thing one encounters is a timeline which charts Powhida’s vision of contemporary era that includes what is going on in the art world but also touches on economic and political events. He is projecting the near future with various dystopian events: The National Endowment for the Arts being eliminated; rising sea levels forcing the evacuation of Miami; and Art Basel not being there anymore. He’s using the trope of speculative fiction and creating visual stories about our future and it doesn’t look so good.”
“After the Contemporary” features a timeline that is hand-drawn and follows the trajectory of the rise and potential fall of today’s art world. Around its periphery are handwritten notes in red – Powhida’s annotations and commentary on the voice of authority, undermining it and interjecting truth about the today’s art world and in particular its economics.
“One of the ways in which Powhida defines the contemporary art era is the rise of the art fair,” says Klein. “Art fairs existed before 2000, but in 2001 Art Basel Miami, a franchise of Art Basel, was created. You had the addition of Frieze Art Fair New York. There was a shift to these trade shows for buyers of contemporary art. In many cases, art dealers who exhibited made the bulk of their sales from these fairs and they became the corporate giants of the art world. It illustrates how they are able to monetize artists’ work by corporate branding. The middle galleries are being forced out of the city by economics. It’s hard for artists to
survive in New York. Large art galleries are expanding exponentially. What’s happened in the last since 2000 has fueled this exhibition.”
The rise of multimillion-dollar auctions has also contributed to the art world frenzy. In 1965 Ethel and Robert Scull, prominent art collectors, bought a Jasper Johns painting for $10,200. In 1973, it sold for $240,000. People began looking at art as an investment. Art auctions have become more financial news than cultural news. These sales are a barometer of what’s going on in the world. The high-end art galleries were not affected by the recession of 2009 because the “Two Percent” were not affected.
In one way Powhida is treading thin ground with this exhibition. His work is collected by many people and yet he skewers collectors who view art from a monetary point of view, biting the hand that feeds him?
Perhaps. But “After the Contemporary” is thought-provoking and entertaining and a marvelous romp through the worlds of art and finance and Powhida’s take on the whole scene – clever, unique and very prescient.
“William Powhida: “After the Contemporary” runs through September 4 at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield. Call 203-438-4519 or visit www.aldrichart.org for more information.