Cutting Class IJohn Haber
in New York City
Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida: "#class"
Not so long ago, Jerry Saltz urged museums to stay open all night, free, for artists only. Not that museums lack for cheap hours, that artists could all pass a means test, or that artists are all night people. Still, my favorite blog comment nailed what truly makes them so special. They would just treat the place like an opening, ignore the art, and socialize. The savvy ones would network. I know I do.
Maybe one could find them an alternative gathering, with more attention to how the art scene should behave. Make them sit through class. More precisely, welcome them to "#class," organized by Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida. A month-long, wide-open exhibition, it risks going nowhere fast, but that is precisely the point. Artists and dealers might learn a thing or two about themselves. Powhida's drawings have been trying to teach them for some time.
In the second part of this two-part article, I return to "#class" for "The Critics Panel." I also return a year later for a second performance, with more pretence and harsher language. In person earlier, I suggested considering not just whether the system works, at least for some artists, but how it works. Could this be the place to begin?
No one knows an artist's dilemma better than Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida, in all its idealism, egotism, and friendly or brutal competition. Without that muddle, they know, no art would get done; but with it, all too many artists struggle to survive. More than three years after Dalton's 2006 exhibition, which asked, I am still trying to decide whether I am a loser or a pig. (Well, okay, loser for sure.) And who knows? If Powhida had not made Jeffrey Deitch the center of a map of the art world (a link away from Saltz), LA MOCA might never have stolen him away.
Like all their work, "#class" balances precariously between satire, serious criticism, performance, and confession. In fact, it leaves open from day to day just where it will fall. At any given time, the artists might be working, talking, and selling for whatever the traffic will bear. Or they might be inviting others, if inviting is the right word, to "Shut Up Already, I'll Look at your Art!" Round-table discussions tackle the ins and outs of life from art school to New York City—and how much either one matters. Guest performers might be playing motivational speaker, declaring The Celebritist Manifesto, musing "On Failure and Anonymity," or reading aloud from Alan Kaprow, who wrote back when happenings were really happening.
The day before the opening, classroom furniture had arrived, chalkboards of green paint covered the walls, and Dalton was putting the finishing touches on their unfinished message. One spot read "market my ass" (pun definitely intended). Another repeated a promise never again to serve as an unpaid intern, like a child atoning for bad behavior. An hour into the opening both inscriptions had vanished, as visitors left their own messages, lists, and equations. Mostly, though, they were drinking and networking. See, that blog comment on Saltz had it right after all.
A few nights later, Powhida was driving a discussion of whether the system works, while Edward Winkleman demanded a vote and commanded the chalkboard. Things had landed firmly on the side of the serious. People spoke freely, sharing their own frustrations and investments in the system. I talked way too much myself. No one felt pressured to sit through it all like a class, but no one really wanted to leave. It was hard to believe that we were in a gallery well into the evening, without so much as free beer, though the walk back was a chastening reminder.
Maybe I needed a reality check. Even seriousness and humor have their limits. One could see it on the chalkboard, where the dream of collaboration had driven out the artists' pungency. One could hear it as the group that evening struggled to define the system, much less whether it works and what counts as success. (The vote divided evenly, with Powhida and Winkleman on opposite sides.) An intimate gathering was not going to solve anything in two hours anyway, amid so much artist resentment.
Not that Dalton and Powhida believe they can. (I have tried often enough myself to define complicity, institutional power, and what critics do.) Surely the exhibition, to borrow pomo vocabulary, is also an intervention. Modest as ever, Powhida denied trying to change markets, much less abolish them. He also reinvented art criticism for an off-site event anyway, a tour of Chelsea. Still, the difficulty says a lot about the show's limits and ambitions.
Three kinds of failure
Its gamble on collective action puts demands on the artists and dealer, and they are giving generously. Group sessions go out on webcasts. Both Winkleman and his co-director are working late and Sundays, as well as juggling the 2010 art fairs. Both artists must put in time every day, and the schedule keeps changing even apart from the snow. For all that, the show means artists talking mostly to each other—all within the confines of a gallery. And that means it sometimes struggles to say enough about anything.
It also risks losing the edge that Dalton and Powhida brought in the first place. Something like that happened just weeks before, when the Bruce High Quality Foundation held its own class in a gallery, with real chalkboards but no teachers in sight. The jokes were real, but their target had already moved on. Both shows attest to a sense of frustration everywhere—including frustration with the power of actual art schools. The title "#class" in fact refers to at least three kinds of collective—Twitter, the classroom, and socioeconomic class. But who can afford to cut class?
"#class" knows all that, too. If the system can absorb anything, why not open the gallery to others and watch it happen? Dalton and Powhida also care enough to appear in person, while the anonymous Bruces play hit-and-run. Maybe it takes both tactics to define the system and success. What if there multiple kinds of failure, just as in free markets? I asked just that when I attended.
Markets always have winners and losers, but one can still feel dismay at the exclusions. I admire the contribution of mainstream galleries. I feel it again at shows like this. Even so, I feel deeply for those who only wish they had time and income to make art. And that sad outcome counts as a market that works. At other times, the free market cannot even claim that much.
There are things a market is just not meant to do, quite apart from rescuing those who cannot find jobs. Many beyond artists and buyers benefit from art, which contributes to and shapes culture at large. That is why government and others support museums, nonprofits, and individuals, both directly and indirectly. There is also outright market failure in art, just as in the housing boom and bust. It appears in wildly inflated prices and reputations, driven by a closed circle of collectors and celebrity artists. Markets do correct themselves, and reputations die, but in the long run we are all dead.
All this makes it hard to talk about "the system," as if it all held together with enough circles and arrows. In a handout for "#class," Ben Davis makes a savvy start. He supplies "9.5 Theses on Art and Class"—neither dismissing art as a luxury good, nor elevating art to a sphere all its own. It is not a bundle of laughs, but I am not ready to vote yet on whether the system or the exhibition works. Four weeks is bound to contain surprises and successes, and I have already seen it happen several more times. If I were you, I would not cut "#class."
How dare I review Powhida anyway? His work already amounts to an extended art review. He has also preemptively defined criticism as a "vestigial practice . . . largily replaced by description." (Well, I could always correct his spelling.) A detour to his past work may supply some context. I can then return to class.
One can hardly review Powhida without quoting him. And that would get me into trouble. The centerpiece of his previous solo show consists of captioned portraits in colored pencil, linked by arrows into a diagram of the art world with, of course, Deitch at its heart. Many more faces surround them in snapshots, as a reality check—or, more likely, an extended network. I could quote his telling characterizations, but they would either include you or leave you out. Either way, you would be mad at me.
They are already mad at him. As he puts it, people either love his work or hate it. They might be better off laughing, even at their own expense—as Jerry Saltz did later, finding himself pursued by angry bloggers with knives in Powhida's art fair "Hooverville" at Pulse 2010. Maybe they fear that others are now circulating favorite squibs via Facebook and Twitter. Powhida does, after all, represent art as a form of social networking. A "narrative" near the entrance defines gossip as its "primary means for disseminating information."
They may even fear that someone will believe him. As his solo show's title puts it, "The Writing Is on the Wall." Powhida favors checklists and definitions, all just warped enough to ring true, like Ward Shelley's family trees of Modernism without the misplaced nostalgia—but without the attitude of a teacher who has thrown up his hands and stalked out of class. They encompass a scene stretching from the Lower East Side ("spawning ground for . . wannabe trustfund HIPSTERS") to Dubai ("Imaginary city built entirely out of imaginary money"). They have given up hope in such alternatives as Williamsburg ("formerly vibrant artist community turned into low-risk playground") or nonprofits ("joke; endangered form . . .; tax haven"). After the crash, one might as well "curl up and die."
Powhida takes that message personally. As he scrawls directly on one wall, "I am disgusted with myself, this wretched character I have become." The show also contains episodes in a life, with handmade facsimiles of tabloid articles as evidence. It includes his wife's deserting him, a descent into alcoholism, and an arrest for smuggling drugs from Thailand. Does his alleged experience undermine the authority of his art commentary—or reinforce it? I would tell you, but I am too busy looking for myself among the drawings.
Of course, one might have other grounds for distrust (apart from my absence there). Art is a fiction, and his one includes a checklist headed "How to Write a Literary Masterpiece." Powhida letters obsessively but never quite neatly, on ordinary notebook paper—less like a diary, a confession, or an artist's book than long overdue homework from eighth grade. Biologists have a rule of ten: one in ten exotic species imported as pets escapes into wild, one in ten of those becomes established, and one in ten established exotics become pests. Art has its share of exotics and pests, and it could stand a few more as worth quoting.
"#class," organized by Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida, ran at Winkleman gallery through March 20, 2010. Powhida had a solo show at Schroeder Romero through May 16, 2009, Ward Shelley at Pierogi through May 17. "Miami Basel Hooverville," a collaboration with Jade Townsend, first showed at Pulse Miami in December 2009 and again with Charlie James Gallery at Pulse New York in March 2010. A continuation of this article returns to "#class" and to another performance in 2011.