The final guest for our month long curation of Ace Hotel New York’s May artist-in-residence was William Powhida, artist and artistic co-director of AICAD, MFTA member organization since 2009. Infrequent contributor to ArtFCity and Hyperallergic, and founding member of Placeholder (a group committed to developing long-term, rent-stabilized studio space in New York) Powhida humorously provokes the art world, highlighting the paradoxes and absurdities of competing economic and social value systems which in his view, keep the sphere of visual art afloat on a tide of inequality.
How was it?! The residency was quite a bit of fun, and given the nature of the hotel residency, I treated it as opportunity to engage in some leisurely art making. It seemed appropriate to the atmosphere of Ace Hotel New Yorkand its guests. I ended up making a portfolio of drawings using office materials reclaimed from MFTA and recycling what we consumed during the stay. My wife joined for the evening and her practice of drawing portraits from film-stills inspired me to do some drawings from Anchorman which was playing on the hotel cable.
I also wanted to keep the residency light and treat it with a sense of humor and play after some of the recent controversy about the exchange. I think the drawings I left with the Ace reflect a fair exchange of time and energy in an environment designed to encourage people to chill out and relax.
When did you first visit MFTA? I first visited MFTA in 2003 or 2004 with as an art teacher at Brooklyn Preparatory High School, and was able bring back a rather amazing supply of paper for our art program. I literally bottomed-out my small Honda Civic with a supply of paper that we made great use of during the first years of our school.
Can you describe your work at AICAD? How does access to MFTA help support its programs? I am the artistic co-director of the program and I focus on the academic and studio experience for undergraduate art students doing a semester of study in New York. I also oversee the students’ general experience and help maintain a productive working environment. I maintain my studio here as well and share my working life as an artist with the residents. Every semester, my administrative co-director Alan Lupiani helps arrange a visit to MFTA for interested students who often return with an array of materials that are incorporated into their work. MFTA provides students the opportunity to experiment and engage with sometimes unexpected materials that they discover during their visits. It often introduces an element of chance and play into their studios that comes from making use of interesting finds.
Your work consistently challenges and provokes – how do you decide on the materials/medium adept to charging such strong ideas? I feel like my work in many ways is reactionary to the culture of the arts and the environments in which I exhibit my work. I often incorporate the culture and politics of the different cities I work in, and some of the myths. Normally, I like to work in media that address those cultures, such as periodicals, magazines or movie trailers that are specific to a city and/or industry. At MFTA, all of the stationary and office supplies suggested the possibility of the materials a person staying at the Ace might bring for a business trip, while I wanted to gently subvert their function to reflect the relative luxury and privilege of a stay in hotel I normally couldn’t afford. There was also an element of excess, or the party atmosphere that permeates the hotel (thus the bottle of bourbon, which I may or may not have drank while watching Anchorman as my wife slept on the couch).
How do you think creative reuse can function as a catalyst for change? As a teacher, I think it affords students access to a whole range of art materials, which there simply are not enough of in the New York City Public School system. At an early stage, it can be crucial for students to just engage in material play and get a sense that art can be made out of things at hand, not what they think ‘art’ should be made out of. It can be a way of bypassing resistance to using traditional art materials, which I have heard students say they don’t want to ‘waste’.
As an artist, I think it proposes an idea that art doesn’t have to be fabricated out of expensive materials with the precision of military or aerospace engineering which becomes associated with luxury items like yachts or Swiss watches. I also think it challenges artists to find new ways of looking at the surplus and sometimes detritus of business and industry. There is always something a little bit sad about searching through MFTA wondering if we are seeing the donations from office or business closures, or the excess of some ill-fated production. It’s hard for me not to think about the lifespan of objects, technology, or businesses; an unused appointment book from 2012, a blank Rolodex, or letterhead from a defunct company. Appropriating some of this latent content and giving it a new purpose might demystify some of our misplaced belief in progress (technological or otherwise) while suggesting there are possibilities for renewal in a rapidly changing world. Maybe the act forces us to reflect on the past for a moment, instead of always looking ahead to the next thing. There is still some value in understanding the last thing or making obsolescence visible.
A sealed letter to Jeff Koons by William Powhida, 2015.