Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Back To School”
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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Back To School”

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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist

“Back To School”

Season 2, Episode 4

Who is the host of this show? The Work Of Art producers would like you to think that it’s China Chow—more accurately known as China C.H.O.W., a product of the Competition Hosting Or Wafflemaking division at Northrop Grumman. (China forever aspires to escape the shadow of her successful older brother, the Eggo.)

But The Sucklord would like you to think it’s The Sucklord. He’s the shadow emcee of Work Of Art, directing the proceedings by superficially refusing to buy into the reality-teevee machine while, in truth, buying into it with all his might.

In that sense, The Sucklord is this season’s Miles Mendenhall. Although The Sucklord is far less insidious and off-putting (and his artworks are less compelling than Miles’ were), at times he’s as entertaining as Miles ever was. Even better, when you enjoy Sucklord’s antics, you don’t feel like you’ve just been hoodwinked in a game of televisual three-card monte, which tended to be the case with the flirting, mugging, ass-baring, OCD-feigning antihero of season one.

The Sucklord speaks truth. As Michelle—winner of the first challenge and runner-up in the second—talks about the judges’ disappointment in her last work, The Sucklord sarcastically remarks, “They had such high hopes for their golden girl.” He knows how the show’s creators would frame her downfall, and there’s an implicit lesson in his remark for Michelle: They’ll do whatever they want with you, because you’re there to sell the commercials for Water For Elephants on DVD, not the other way around. Then The Sucklord crosses the names of last week’s evictees off the chalkboard, which is a more potent sendoff than the tepid “The Work Of Art work you worked up didn’t work for us, so work on finding work elsewhere” speech that China uses to say goodbye to the loser each week.

The artists arrive in their studio to find a bunch of kids there. Some artists are ill at ease. Michelle wonders if she’s “allowed to pat the kid on the shoulder,” because she knows there’s no better way to bond with a child than tentative hand-to-clavicle contact. Dusty, on the other hand, is a fifth-grade art teacher, so he already knows what falls within the realm of “good touch.”

There is some very nice work among the kids’ art. Bayeté and Michelle’s junior partners have especially memorable pieces—an elaborate garden scene and a series of haunting eye portraits, respectively.

Sarah Jessica Parker arrives, as we know she must at least once per season, so okay, let’s get on with it. Parker can’t just walk in with China; it has to be a “surprise.” Everyone’s like oh wow yeah the star of Sex And The City 2 woo yes excitement. Parker announces that the challenge is to create a companion piece inspired by a child’s artwork. It sounds like Magical Elves and Bunim/Murray bought the same 101 Can’t-Miss Reality-Show Challenge Ideas book, as Project Runway did the same challenge earlier this season.

Parker works the artists into a froth of suspense—an absolute goddamn froth, I tell you—by telling them she is about to say something that she has “always wanted to say.” Then she pretends that “You have until midnight tonight, and a few hours tomorrow” has a place alongside “The tribe has spoken” and “Is that your final answer?” in the TV catchphrase pantheon. It doesn’t, of course—it’s not even at “Will it float?” levels of cachet—but that doesn’t keep the artists from chuckling out of politeness/fear as SJP takes this classic line and makes it her own.

Then it is time for everyone to fraternize with the children. Parker positions herself three inches from a girl’s face and belts, “HI, I’M SARAH JESSICA.” Initially tentative about working with kids, The Sucklord falls into a rapport with young Reynie, as she’s something of a budding Sucklady herself. When her parents got married, they had Princess Leia and Han Solo figurines on top of their cake. On the other hand, when The Sucklord asks Reynie if he should include the Jar-Jar Binks figurine in his piece, she says yes. The “Millennials” truly are a lost generation.

Kymia’s partner, Alana, has drawn a carrot on the beach, which doesn’t give Kymia much to work with. So Kymia engages Alana in a deeper conversation about her piece, asking the young artist to talk about what exists outside the frame. Free-associating, Alana discovers that, just out of the picture, a young girl has died from eating everything in sight. And Kymia’s off and running.

We get a bunch of the artists’ childhood pictures and stories. Lola’s mom “dated Al Pacino for about 10 years, so of course I was drawn to being an artist.” The “of course” bit only makes sense depending on which 10 years of Pacino we’re talking about here. 

Tewz starts building concrete molds. “My piece connects to Kyle’s piece [a picture of vegetables] in more of a conceptual way,” Tewz says, which sounds like nothing but trouble.

Sara J.’s partner, Zelda, made a mural out of a bunch of words and also happens to be 10 years old. “Well, I’ll think of words that meant something to me at age 10,” Sara concludes. Her parents got divorced at age 10. So she prints the word “divorse” over and over again—the “S” is for “self-indulgent.”

“Let me start my STUDIO VISIT!” Simon roars, and the artists aren’t about to say no.

Simon’s conference with The Sucklord, who is making slow progress on a big foam tree, ends with a textbook Simon de Pury hard-truth-disguised-as-call-to-action: “It can go both ways. It depends on your skill!”

At Sara J.’s workspace, Simon faces the same problem that the judges will later encounter even more acutely, which is that Sara just wants to talk about her parents’ divorce, and it’s hard to critique someone who is sobbing about genuine family trauma. Yet Sara has descended so far down her own bellybutton that somebody needs to yell down there and tell her to come on out. Luckily, Simon is excellent at yelling. He’s still careful, though “Seeing Zelda’s work has awakened memories in you of your own childhood,” he offers cautiously, and then he adds, “I don’t want the judges to think that Zelda’s work is actually more impressive than the work you made to complement it.” It’s a fair warning, but Sara has only the haziest memories of this “Zelda” person by now, so it doesn’t have the intended effect.

Later, Tewz explains the shape his work will take. “I’m gonna pour concrete in here, and I’m gonna make the word ‘GROW,’ and there’s gonna be things growing out of it. So it’s gonna be about growth and children and growing up.” Because Simon is one of the finest art connoisseurs in the world, he is able to pick up on the subtle theme that weaves its way through Tewz’s concept. Yet he remains “worried” nonetheless. Tewz dismisses Simon’s critique, saying, “Sometimes he’s wrong.” Yes. Sometimes.

As Michelle describes her piece—a bush full of geese who have pecked each other’s eyes out, inspired by young John’s portraits of eyes—Simon’s head goes into such an extreme skeptical tilt that he’s practically sideways. It occurs to Michelle that sometimes Simon is not wrong, and in fact this happens rather often, so she ditches the geese.

Before he leaves, Simon announces that he will personally auction off the winning work, with all proceeds donated to the Studio In A School Charity. The artists do a good job of acting like they are psyched to receive zero percent of the take.

Despite brushing off Simon’s critique, Tewz is feeling uneasy about his concrete letters. He needs to see some crappy artwork from other contestants so that his stuff doesn’t look so bad by comparison. Lola is drawing sloppy pictures of flowers on top of a photograph of flowers. That does the trick! Young is putting feathers on a life-size picture of himself. Tewz can feel his confidence return by the minute.

As usual, before the gallery show, we get the silly non-sequitur segment, which is one of the nicer touches of the Work Of Art format—it appropriately calms the mood for the faux-high-society ambience of the exhibit. On tonight’s silly segment, Work Of Art investigates the question, “What were the artists like as kids?” It turns out they were like the way they are as adults, except kiddier. Insights!

The judges greet the contestants in the gallery. Parker is the guest judge, billed as a member of the President’s Committee On The Arts And Humanities, which makes you think maybe the Tea Party has a point. She’s followed by the usual suspects: Bill, China, and toggle-sweater-wearing Captain Jerry Saltz of the S.S. Louis Leroy, ready to hoist his mizzenmast of incisive commentary.

It’s a markedly better exhibit than last week’s. Sarah K. complements her partner Marlo’s silhouette art by placing the figures in a shadow box, where an electric fan gives them a light, wobbling motion. This treatment gives the silhouettes an extra depth and mystery, like they’re in a paper-thin chrysalis and on the verge of breaking out. Michelle’s final, goose-free work, a paper bush with intense pairs of eyes hidden in its underbrush, has a similar mix of deep-woods intrigue and danger.

Bayeté puts forth his best effort of the season, although that’s a low bar. The work comes in two parts. First, there’s his overly faithful colorized version of the original garden scene drawn by his co-partners, Liora and Isabel. There’s also a looping time-lapse movie of Bayeté’s drawing in the process of creation, which Bayeté projects on the gallery wall. The animation has a homespun folk-art liveliness to it. But while Sarah K.’s work amplifies her partner’s art, Bayeté’s work feels more derivative than additive.

The top two are Dusty and Kymia. Dusty produces an interactive sculpture version of the abstract drawing created by his partner Kei. It has doors along its edges that open to reveal small details of Kei’s life, including, down the right side, the features of his face. It’s a clever, well-executed piece that uses physical interaction effectively, rather than, say, as a lazy gimmick where you just throw some markers on the back of an overgrown iPad app icon and coast to the win. Bill tells Dusty, “You called this a portrait, but to me, it’s more a visual biography.” Bill likes to come up with neat things to call stuff. He’s the Tom Haverford of Work Of Art

So yes, Dusty does a nice job, but the clear winner is Kymia. Her work is a daring, engrossing, and gorgeous drawing of a girl lying dead on the beach, engulfed by sea birds. The tail end of a carrot sticks out of the girl’s mouth, hinting at Alana’s original painting. The judges praise Kymia’s technique and her process of working with Alana to construct a larger vision together. Indeed, I think Kymia’s style of collaboration with her grade-school partner is the most ingenious part of this piece.

Kymia treats her child artist like an artist, while Sucklord—who joins Tewz and Sara in the bottom three—treats his like a child. He spends the entire episode acting like a fretful mother hen and avowing that his piece will be a success if it just makes a little girl happy. He becomes obsessed with not failing to meet her expectations. The result is a half-melted orange-brown stump with painted Star Wars figurines pasted into it and some rainbow leaves scattered around wherever. The thing looks like an abandoned dung-beetle colony, and it shows none of the flair or passion that The Sucklord so obviously possesses.

But Reynie likes it—or at least she claims to like it when The Sucklord is beaming his eye lasers of desperation into her skull—and isn’t that all that matters? No, actually, nobody gives a shit what the little girl thinks, and it’s depressing to watch The Sucklord lose himself in such preciousness. Cap’n Jerry is fed up with the reliance on Star Wars paraphernalia and implores The Sucklord to start creating his own world instead of “just putting other people’s worlds in the little nooks and crannies.” Jerry promises that if he sees Star Wars one more time, he’s going to “get medieval” on The Sucklord—he might even keelhaul the scurvy dog.

Sara J. starts crying before her crit even begins, which naturally sends China into Extra-Somber mode (i.e., she moves her face as little as possible when she speaks). Sara’s work, “inspired by” Zelda’s vibrant word mural, is a triptych of illustrations featuring three key memories from Sara’s 11th year: her parents’ divorce, the revelation of her mother’s affairs, and her half-brother. That’s an awfully rough collection of memories, and Sara relates them all through gagging, moaning sobs. Most of the judges shift around uncomfortably. China mulls whether to play it safe with “watery eyes” or take a chance with “single sympathetic tear running down my cheek.” She opts for watery eyes.

“Let’s just talk about stylistically, and let’s not get into the content,” Bill says to Sara, a stupendously diplomatic way of taking the divorce stuff off the table. Jerry does indeed proceed to critique her style, but then Parker chimes in with, “What I wish you’d been able to do is maybe show the girl you wish you could’ve been.” Like, maybe Sara wishes she had been more like Sarah Jessica Parker, as all right-thinking women do! The remark unseats Bill’s “Deaf people gotta love Facebook” line as the most insensitive thing a judge has said to a contestant this season, and we’re only four episodes in.

Then Tewz prepares to defend the four letter-like piles of crumbling concrete that he has crafted over the past 24 hours. The Sucklord plays a bigger part in this crit than Tewz himself does. After Bill says that the work “has a little bit of a PSA quality to it,” The Sucklord jumps in. “This is a badass piece!” he cries. “We allowed ourselves to be opened up by these kids, and all our hard exterior crap broke open, and the promise of this future thing came through. And if that’s a little bit too abstract or liberal literal or preachy or PSA, I don’t give a fuck. I think this thing has balls.” It’s such an impassioned speech that it’s almost convincing—especially if you initially hear “literal” as “liberal” and think that The Sucklord is expressing a point of view, rather than just thrashing around wildly as is the actual case. (Thanks to Zorro Means Fox for the correction.)

But then your eye returns to that decrepit “GROW” with those sad green shoots sticking out of it, looking like one Will Smith fan’s strange tribute to I Am Legend, and the effects of all that Sucklord vigor fade away. Tewz doesn’t help his own case, either. He lamely says that he didn’t know what else he could have done with Kyle’s still-life painting. In a response so cold it seems to be drawn from the icy depths of Davy Jones’ Locker, Jerry says, “I believe you. I believe you wouldn’t know how else to interpret it, and that troubles me a lot.”

The judges talk over their decision. Meanwhile, upstairs in the lounge, The Sucklord’s speech appears to have boosted the camaraderie that already existed in the artists’ ranks. Everyone is fired up. Tewz tells a tear-streaked Sara that she’s a “beautiful person” and that if the judges “can’t see the beauty in that, fuck ’em!”

The judges can see the beauty in Sara’s work, though. Despite its conceptual missteps, her illustrations are distinctive and well-made. So in the wake of Jerry’s condemnation, it’s Tewz who gets tossed overboard. After all, The Sucklord can’t go anywhere just yet. He’s got a show to host.

Stray observations:

  • I would have liked to see the judges react more to The Sucklord’s defense of Tewz. The way it was edited, the discussion moved right along after a non-verbal, “Well how about that!” from Bill. But surely there must have been a more meaningful exchange.
  • Is this the first time that two people with rattails have been cast in a primetime TV show?
  • Maybe I’m nuts, but I thought that one of the kids looked just like a pre-pubescent version of Miles—which is to say, he looked like Miles. His specter haunts this program!
  • China to Sara: “Unfortunately, you made a piece that was all about you.” Jeez. I get what (the segment producer who wrote this line for) China was saying, yet I feel the judges could have chosen their words a little better with this distraught woman.
  • It was kind of annoying to have that clock at the bottom of the screen counting down the seconds until Top Chef. Hey Bravo, you may consider Work Of Art to be an appetizer, but some of us consider it the meal. Oh, God damn it, I just played right into their hands, didn’t I? CURSE YOU FOOD-THEMED REALITY SHOW.
  • I can’t remember if I’ve said this before, but I like the last shot of the booted artist taking his or her self-portrait off the wall. The dark silhouette each artist leaves behind is a great set-design detail.
  • Here is your Strange Simon de Pury YouTube Video Of The Week. This week, Simon barks the names of various popular musicians at a person! And then he shouts money amounts at other people.