Ominous Shapes by Talon Gustafson
A review of
Dunkle Wolke curated by William Powhida

I understand this is a group show, so forgive me if I mostly talk about the curator, William Powhida, however it's just too tempting not to. I was interested in this show because it presents an opportunity for Powhida to walk the walk ( to use an expression I don't really care for). For those of you who don't know, Powhida has made a name for himself as one who is primarily concerned with calling out the art world's hierarchy and railing against it's capitalistic, star-obsessed cronyism. His criticism is entertaining, so much so, he has become an art celebrity in his own right. The art world is tickled by his mockery. Jerry Saltz loves that Powhida makes fun of him. And so very recently, Powhida has become an active protagonist rather than a hazy antagonist. A difficult situation to be in. How do you successfully navigate through the upper echelons of a political system that you publicly disparage without coming off as hypocritical? Being an artist is a good start. Artists's can have their cake and it eat too. Like rappers, they can have personas that can be used as scapegoats for any ethical discrepancy you might find. Snoop Dogg makes porn, performs on Sesame Street, hangs out on The View, raps about murder–whatever. Not a problem. Artists aren't really expected to adhere to the ideals they put forth. So by no means does Powhida have to walk the walk. He can do whatever he likes.

But if we can assume that he would like to see his rants realized in a "be the change you want to see in the world" sort-a-way, then it's worth noting a few discrepancies that stand out in Dunkle Wolke. Firstly, all five artists in the show are fellow Hunter MFA alums. In his drawing "How the New Museum Committed Suicide With Banality" Powhida quotes Josephine Meckseper as saying "Contemporary art doesn't possess a universal language yet because it's economically tied to an elitist structure." I don't think we can count esteemed MFA programs out of this structure. There are several curators out there addressing the very issues Powhida expresses in his drawings, why can't he be one of them? More democratic, less insular. One or two buddies–passable, but an entire show of buddies? Too easy. Smells of cronyism. Also, shouldn't these friends be listed somewhere near the top of the press-release or on Powhida's blog, by the title of the show, just under the curator, definitely before the Will Oldham lyrics? Instead I found them buried in the body copy. Seems like a big oversight given the curators interest in hierarchy. CURATED BY WILLIAM POWHIDA. Obviously the gallery is leveraging Powhida's name to attract suckers like me to come see the show. It's just smart advertising. Storefront's next show is CURATED BY JULES DE BALINCOURT. Anyway, back to the lyrics. I don't have a problem with Will Oldham and the lyrics do encapsulate the show's gloomy character but didn't the New Museum already quote one of his songs in the Unmonumental book? It's probably just a good rule of thumb not to reference indie rock in a press-release. Unless you want to conjure an image of Will Oldham in a worn, lavender tank top, plucking his acoustic, making screwed-up singing faces.

That being said, to be fair, mostly this show does align without Powhida's ideals (it's not at Gagosian and James Franco is nowhere to be found). In his statement for Dunkle Wolke, Powhida says "present in the works of the artists, all of whom I think about when I consider art’s relationship to the authority of history and its certainty of intention, which I do not share." The most straight forward embodiment of this statement is in Bjoern Meyer-Ebrecht's sculptures. Rising from the floor like miniature Mondrian-inspired skyscrapers, they function as pedestals to display soft-cover books on modernist theory. Less heavy-handed but just as visually seductive are Meyer-Ebrecht's wall pieces. Black book covers, Le Corbusier etc., cut-up and reassembled into angular silhouettes, that effectively illustrate the artist's distrust, dotting the gallery walls like black wounds. Bill Abdale's charcoal drawings document worn books; covers pealed, pages torn, revealing a palimpsest reminding us that text is constantly changing with time, the reader is co-author, the author is dead. Ellie Ga's photos look to piece back together the history of a forgotten arctic expedition, and like Errol Morris's seminal post-modern film The Thin Blue Line (1988), she explores history's mutability.

The work is literate, visually striking (the show looks good) and makes sense contextually. However, Powhida's concern about the authority of history and it's certainty of intention comes across as a little dated or maybe just surprising that this is still weighing so heavily on the minds of so many artists. Not to say the problem is solved (unsolvable) but it is delineated and understood. Not too many contemporary artists out there are stubbornly asserting that history is 100% accurate. This is a time when a good deal of postmodernism's concerns are being attended to by the internet, namely a decentering of authority (recent political protests, wikileaks), plurality, a dissipation of grand narratives (blogs, social networking) and the reader's literal activation in the creation of text (wiki). How will these major changes effect how history will be recorded? History's certainty of intention has already been rattled. Is this really a Dunkle Wolke, a dark cloud or a beam of sunshine? Terry Eagleton writes "Postmodernism seems at times to behave as though the classical bourgeoisie is alive and well, and thus finds itself living in the past. It spends much of its time assailing absolute truth, objectivity, timeless moral values, scientific inquiry and a belief in historical progress. It calls into question the autonomy of the individual, inflexible social and sexual norms, and the belief that there are firm foundations to the world. Since all of these values belong to a bourgeois world on the wane, this is rather like firing off irascible letters to the press about the horse-riding Huns or marauding Carthaginians who have taken over the Home Counties."

Dunkle Wolke seems to be aware of this world on the wane, but is not ready to let it go. That world provided something defined to push against. Perhaps the new world's general acceptance of a lack of firm foundations is manifesting itself in Dunkle Wolke as the "ominous shape" that Powhida mentions in the press-release. Jenny Vogel's Xerox transfers depicts amateur images of UFO sightings and according to the artist, "not to prove or disprove them, but rather as a potential document to the necessity of belief." Black shapes mark out the main action of the images, imbuing them with mystery while simultaneously obscuring the mystery they intend to document. Viewing Dunkle Wolke through the lens of the ominous shape, the work comes together to present an uneasiness that feels more uncertain of the future rather than skeptical of the past. There's a comfort in the sadness, "a necessity of belief" that lends the small gallery a pathos that is endearing. Bjoern Meyer-Ebrecht's become less dogmatic, more probing for an answer. Abdale's drawings less stodgy, more tender and sentimental.

Dunkle Wolke is a quiet, introspective show with a patina of academic rhetoric. Once this patina is removed, it reveals itself to be an anxious meditation about the necessity to believe in something, like a vining plant searching for a chain link fence.

I have concerns for Powhida, that he will become something like an Eddie Vedder of the art world. If we recall, Vedder in the 90s was emoting about the music industry, fighting Ticketmaster, pushing vinyl, complainining about MTV and retiring from music videos, writing anti-capitalist slogans on his face, the whole nine yards. All of his caterwauling was entertaining but mostly for naught as the system he was fighting was already losing a different battle to the information age. One could argue that art world could be going through a similar transformation. More artists, more diverse, less centralized, more critics, more democratic, more available. Who knows how it will function in 10 years. I mean, I'm half-joking with this comparison, Powhida is much savvier than Vedder (but probably not as virile). Like I said earlier, Powhida is an artist, he can do whatever he likes and he's curated an interesting group of artists for Dunkle Wolke but if Dunkle Wolke is a microcosm of his vision of the art world then it's still a little inward-looking and still has a hierarchy that favors the celebrity.

View of Dunkle Wolke

William Powhida, Detail of "How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality"

Bjoern Meyer-Ebrecht, Untitled (Book stands), 2011

Will Oldham

Bjoern Meyer-Ebrecht, Untitled (Book Covers II), 2008

Bill Abdale, Crime & Punishment, 2010

Ellie Ga, In the Beginning North Was Here

Jenny Vogel, Like a Blind Man in a Dark Room

David McBride, Cave Painting (Honey In The Rock) I