It was record-hot last Thursday in Seattle. Sweaty anticapitalist marches for International Workers' Day clogged big streets. Police guarded the defenseless windows of Niketown. And superheroes in full-body costumes skirmished with cop-loathing anarchists. At City Hall, the mayor summoned reporters and TV cameras to hear his plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2021. A few blocks north in a public plaza, Kshama Sawant, Seattle's socialist city council member, rallied the fight for a faster and surer path to $15. I felt useless and disconnected going to art walk in Pioneer Square that night—until I got to a show by William Powhida, who transformed Platform Gallery into an experimental showroom for the products of low-wage Chinese art labor. The paintings at the show are replicas of Powhida's own drawings of lists and letters, neurotic rants about the heatedly capitalist contemporary art world. He's not a Seattle artist, but Powhida wove his work right into what matters most in Seattle now. No other art that night came close to rhyming with the rest of the day's tortured deliberations on exploitation.
The oil paintings in the gallery were made in a painting village in China. "A painting village is just this gritty neighborhood in Shenzhen with all these concrete buildings full of people painting Monets and Gauguins and Van Goghs that look exactly like the originals," Platform owner Stephen Lyons said. He got the idea for this show when he visited one a year ago. When I asked how much he paid for the paintings, he laughed darkly and said, "I'm not telling ya." Pennies, I imagine, since the Chinese painters' raison d'être is to out-minimum any wage. Powhida sent JPEGs of his work to these Chinese workers, anything that's currently available on his website. When the paintings arrive in a box from China, they're still flat scraps of canvas, and Lyons has to stretch them. His stretching station, the final stop on the assembly line, is set up in the middle of the gallery as part of the show.
Each painting at Platform sells for $350.
Meanwhile, Powhida's non-made-in-China drawings—the pencil drawings he makes with his own hands—sell for $5,500 on the low end in New York and Los Angeles. In Seattle, art dealers say it's virtually impossible to sell anything for more than $1,200. Powhida began showing in Seattle in 2006, but his prices have risen beyond Seattle. To afford to show in Seattle, Powhida has to hire Chinese labor. Seattle has no art market, but it's a wealthy city. This has frustrated artists and dealers since Bill Gates emerged from his garage. At the entrance to the show, there's a new original drawing and explanation for how the show came to be, called Dear Seattle, that comes to this conclusion: "I think maybe your rich people just suck."
They knew nothing would sell, so Lyons and Powhida considered showing all Not for Sale pieces. In the end, Lyons thought back to those painting villages. Regular people could afford their products, yet their products also expose dilemmas faced by small businesses fighting to survive, to do good work without resorting to ever-cheaper labor. If you buy this art, are you supporting cheap labor, or are you supporting a critique of cheap labor?
Powhida's original drawings are meticulously crafted, full of arguments and ideas. Chinese art laborers are masters at making copies of landscapes so luscious, you could mistake them for the originals. They're the best copiers in the world. Lyons bought a thick, juicy Sunflowers there, created to pass a blind test against the Van Gogh original. The twist with Powhida's work is that highly skilled Chinese art laborers don't, for the most part, speak English, and almost all of Powhida's art is text. The outsourced Powhidas on the walls are un-masterly—they're awkward, with strange spellings and spacings, and in one place, a mistake results in an unintentional slur. Visually, these would-be copies are originals. Powhida calls them "republications," and he created a new drawing to explain the term. It includes the line "Look, it's kinda fucked up, but low prices!" which sounds like the inner voice of a desperate progressive faced with a tremendous bargain at Walmart.
The paintings are available in unlimited quantities for the duration of the exhibition. Each painting from China is sold with an authenticating "Certificate of Republication" signed by Powhida in pencil, his signature medium. And each piece is available in SFW and NSFW versions. The consumer is always right.
Being accepted by the very world his work satirizes has brought Powhida much gnashing of teeth, often revealed in his drawings. But Seattle is a place where he can be a beggar and a crude exploiter of labor simultaneously. What would socialist city council member Kshama Sawant think?
"Save any remaining optimism for less symbolic activism" is item 21 on the 27-item list titled The Formula, one of three new works hand-drawn by Powhida at Platform. It's available both as the "biggest list drawing ever!" at $8,500 (6.5 by 5 feet) and in $350 (15 by 19 inches) republication form.
Which would you prefer?