Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Exile On Main Street”
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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Exile On Main Street”

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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist

“Exile On Main Street”

Season 2, Episode 9

When did everyone start doing a Simon de Pury impression? I was pretty proud of mine until I went home over Thanksgiving, and suddenly my dad and sister were Pury-ing it up at every opportunity. Their banal interpretation was vastly inferior to my nuanced take, of course—I capture the soul of the man—but I realized that Simon has become the Michael Caine of cable reality shows. Sara drives the point home, as even she does a Simon, right to his face, when The World’s Most Enthusiastic Swiss Man comes to the door at the beginning of tonight’s show.

Simon tells the artists that they are going to a town called Cold Springs in upstate New York. The unspoken message is that Simon will not be tagging along. I mean, he had to read “Cold Springs” off of an index card. He can’t even be bothered to memorize the two-word name of the place, let alone go there, as neither of the two words is terribly appealing to him. Plus, he would have to get there on the Metro North—ditto.

On the train, Sara parcels out tobacco into some self-rolled cigarettes, and everyone marvels at the great New York Metropolitan Area outdoors: “Look at this landscape!” they coo as a dreary tableau of dead brush and gray, forgotten industry whizzes by. Methinks some of that tobacky might be a bit wacky.

China greets the artists in a trenchcoat-dress hybrid, having come straight from the annual park-bench-flasher cotillion ball. The challenge is to create a portrait of someone who lives in the town.

Wait, wasn’t Sara already doing that for $10 apiece on last week’s show? Yes, but those were inherently fascinating city folk! This week, the contestants must make portraits of people in a village that probably doesn’t even have its own Thai-Vietnamese fusion-cuisine restaurant. Can the contestants discover artistry in this bunch of borings? Clearly the Work Of Art creators think it will be quite hard.

The artists have two hours to pound the pavement and find a subject. Lola asks one woman if she would like to have her portrait painted. “I have laryngitis today,” the woman says, an excuse so lame that it must be purposefully so. A woman at the local bubble-tea shop (maybe I was wrong!) likewise declines Sara’s advances, but not before teaching Sara a thing or two about Cold Spring. “You’re just living in history,” she tells Sara. “George Washington named the town,” she continues … aaaand that’s all she’s got. George Washington once remarked on the temperature of the place, somebody put that on a sign, and the rest is actual history.

All right, I’m being unfair. Let’s check the Cold Spring page on Wikipedia for all the facts:

“Cold Spring served as an industrial base for 150 years. A battery factory operated from 1952 to 1979, polluting nearby Constitution Marsh, before the marsh was cleaned (at great expense) in the 1990s.”

You might think I cherry-picked that passage, but those two sentences comprise more than half of the “History” section in the Cold Spring entry.

Dusty meets a mother running errands with her young daughter. He’s mostly pleased to find somebody who isn’t tired of hearing Dusty talk about his own kid. See, he’s got this one-year-old daughter and he sure misses her a lot, Dusty tells this pair of fresh ears. He decides to do a portrait of the girl, because she enjoys candy, and her innocent glee reminds him of his one-year-old daughter, who he sure misses a lot oh my god please stop.

Kymia hits paydirt in an antiques store, where the proprietors resemble two aging hippies from a Robert Crumb comic. Lola finds a pair of nerds in a shop that sells collectible coins and currency. “I know that I’m going to do a portrait of Dennis and Tommy, and I love them,” she says. “I love them, I love them!” she repeats in a testimonial. You get the sense that she would like to wrap her love up in a little box and present it to Dennis and Tommy, as an infinitely benevolent gift from her, a beautiful person, to them, not.

Young spends a huge chunk of his allotted time stuck in a bed-and-breakfast as the local innkeeper, who almost certainly hosts a show about “entertaining in the home” for the local public-access cable station, takes him on a tour of every single room in the place. Sitting at home, it is easy to say, “Why not just leave?” but there is a force of will at work here that meek, polite Young is powerless to resist.

After finally extricating himself, Young scrambles for a possible subject. He comes across an artist’s studio. GROAN. In that instant, Young is in the finale. Because once you see that studio, you just know that the painter is not going to refuse a few minutes of his time to another artist. (Young clearly bets on this, as well.) And you also know that no matter what transpires, Young will turn it into some pat statement about the nature of art, and the judges will reward him, probably with huge amounts of money.

As the painter composes a quickie portrait of Young, Young photographs the painter, thereby making a portrait of the portraitist! Hmm, I feel like I’ve heard this idea somewhere before … oh, that’s right, it was at every freshman studio-art-major mixer in the history of time.

Back at the apartment, Dusty mutters, “My idea’s pretty simple right now.” Kymia looks at him with even sadder eyes than usual, and says just one word: “Candy?” Dusty nods. They are resigned to his fate.

Lola has a “revelation!” in the studio. She will write a letter to her favoritest coin collectors in the whole world. She begins her epistle by telling Dennis and Tommy that they are the “secret historians of Cold Spring.” We don’t get to see how the rest of Lola’s letter reads, it’s safe to assume it’s eight paragraphs about penises. 

The trouble with Dusty’s concept—a pointillist portrait of the little girl made entirely from candy pieces—is that it bears a strong resemblance to the self-portrait he brought to the first episode of the season. Simon raises the issue during his studio visit. “For me,” Simon says, “this is a return right to where you started the journey.” Like Kymia, Simon is skeptical that Dusty will be able to survive this, but he tries to be encouraging. “Remember, I want to come to Arkansas,” Simon lies. He pronounces it “ar-CAN-zis” because the index card provided to him by the producers did not have a phonetic spelling.

Lola has blown up images of the old money that she bought at Dennis and Tommy’s shop and arranged them on a large canvas, because these guys like old money, so therefore this can be a portrait of them, ehh? Ehh? You like? “Do you think it’s possible to make a portrait of someone without using their image?” Lola asks. It’s a provocative, interesting question, one that conveniently has no relevance to the issue of whether her stack-of-money idea is any good. “I personally think you could make such an argument,” Simon offers. So Lola successfully manipulates Simon into an indirect endorsement of her work.

Then comes another one of my favorite recurring scenes: Lola and Sara smoking on the roof. These are the most authentic-feeling moments of the whole show. Case in point: Lola tries to feign sympathy for Dusty’s train wreck, but she can’t help but giggle at the notion of someone else failing miserably, as it improves her chances of making it through to the end. The thing is, she doesn’t deliver this line as a “Lola the Bitch” character for the cameras. She’s just making a semi-abashed admission, and because it doesn’t come off as a performance, she’s all the more likable for it.

Dusty experiments with a different idea for a while, filling a canvas with folded-paper “fortune tellers.” The idea is that he’ll paint a portrait on top of them … or something? He isn’t sure. Plus, it does nothing to solve his self-plagiarism problem, because it looks like another previous Dusty work, the crumpled-paper U.S. map he made for the New York Times challenge.

Thus he returns to the M&M portrait, and as he brings the completed work down to the gallery, pieces of candy are falling off. “The more I think about them falling off, the more interesting that is becoming to me,” Dusty says. He’s right, it is sort of interesting. But when the most fascinating thing about your artwork is the fact that hot glue doesn’t bond so well to a colorful candy shell, you are in trouble.

In the Lighter Side Of Work Of Art segment, Lola and Sara have an impromptu dance party in the studio. It’s a cute, fluffy bit of footage. And then Kymia starts crying. Aw, Christ, the whole thing was a setup for more goddamn tears? This show’s saline fetish is crossing the line from exploitive into downright creepy. I don’t like the sensation that when the camera hovers over those swollen, watery eyes, Work Of Art struggles to conceal its arousal.

Gallery show. The guest judge is “celebrated contemporary painter” Richard Phillips, who also made an appearance on the judging panel last season. The Cold Spring residents are invited to the exhibit, and they all profess to be delighted with their portraits. Some appear to be less earnest than others. “I like the tinfoil!” enthuses one half of Lola’s Dennis-’n’-Tommy pair.

Sara is first up in the crit. She has done a punched-sheet-metal portrait of Jackie, a Cold Spring firefighter since 1953. (!) Next to the punched-metal likeness, there’s a cascade of steel name tags darkened by charcoal soot, one for each year he has been on the squad. The arrangement of the nameplates is reminiscent of her foam tailpipe cloud in the Fiat challenge.

Jerry thinks the work is “brave and bold.” Bill thinks that the muddled composition of the nametags diminishes the piece. I agree with Bill, but I still love it when a sneering, smirking Jerry pipes up to tell Bill that he’s full of it. Bill’s face locks into a tight smile, as if to say, “I. Am. Enjoying. This. Respectful. Disagreement.” And thus Jerry reasserts his spot at the top of the Work Of Art intellectual food chain.

Candies keep falling off Dusty’s portrait, but the judges love that. “To me, that might be the best part,” China remarks, presumably because every click-clack noise of a Reese’s Piece falling to the ground brings this off-putting portrait one step closer to oblivion.

Fed up, Lola goes on the attack, pointing out that the judges are praising an aspect of the piece that Dusty never intended. She asks if that matters. Kymia says that it doesn’t, her passive-aggressive way of saying that she thinks Lola is a jerkbutt who should just shut up already.

In another context, I’d say the artist’s intent “matters” insofar as it is one interesting point in a larger discussion. But on a show that is about finding a “great artist”—not just great art—intent matters more. It would be an interesting debate to have on the show. Instead, we just see Dusty making a non-statement on the matter. The gist of his argument is that the candies falling off are certainly a thing that happened to this artwork that is the product of his intention to make art, Q.E.D.

And now over to Lola. She is ferocious as she sells her letter/tinfoil-adorned photograph/money-tower to the judges. Aloof Lola is dead; long live Give-Me-Just-One-More-Episode Lola. “I don’t know that I would get that this is a portrait,” China says, and it’s clear that she does not plan to pursue further the question of whether she gets it or not. The matter is settled: She has no earthly idea if she would get it. Q.E.D.

“I admire that this is a complex, abstract portrait,” Jerry says. And then he makes a devastating, 100-percent correct summation of Lola’s insecurities. He complains that her scattershot application of ideas appear to be a way of “obfuscating,” which he finds “defensive and a little off-putting.”

The segment producer on duty in the edit room discreetly places a binder over the inseam of his khakis as, yes, Lola begins to cry. “I feel defensive because I believe in my piece, and I believe it’s more difficult to get into than some of—other people’s things.” After this thinly veiled swipe, Lola doesn’t know where to go next. She’s a cornered cat, which is always a reliable source of reality-TV loopiness. Lola cries: “I WROTE THEM A LETTER!”

With that, Lola’s show is over. Oh, she continues on for a while, and Kymia takes the opportunity to kick the mean girl while she’s down, but this is all ceremony. Lola has gotten naked. She has flirted. She has made snippy remarks to the camera. And now, with “I WROTE THEM A LETTER!” she delivers a crystallized moment of pure desperation, fulfilling the last of her obligations to the Work Of Art machine.

As she often does after contestants lay their soul bare, China puts a button on this tirade by uttering a prim “thank you” and moving on. She does it the same way a doctor says “thank you” after a full-body exam and turns away so that you can pull up your underpants. It’s not so much “thank you” as “we’ve seen what we need to see.”

Then, on to Young. He takes his trite idea and, at the very least, gives it an engaging look. Young has pasted photographs of his portraitist onto long wooden planks and skewed them in a sort of frame around the 20-minute portrait that the Cold Spring artist painted.

Yet this mild presentational innovation is dismissed by the guest judge in the most ridiculous critique of the season. “I feel like you could remove all the photography,” Phillips says, “and hang his portrait [of Young] directly on the wall and declare, ‘This portrait of me by him constitutes portraiture.’” In other words, Young’s bullshit idea isn’t enough for this guy. He wants it to be even BULLSHITTIER.

Young “totally agrees” with Phillips—of course!—and says, “that would have been an amazing statement.” No, sir. It would have been somehow lazier than the lame, ultra-convenient concept you had in the first place. Merely adding a layer of conceptual abstraction is not the equivalent of adding amazing-ness.

And Jerry can’t jump onto Richard’s train fast enough! Woo-woo, all aboard the Bullshit Express, next stop MADNESS. “I agree with what Richard just said,” Jerry says, and then he yammers something about how Young tidies up his ideas too much, but I couldn’t really hear it because my eyes had rolled so far back in my head they were blocking my earholes.

Even if you put aside the ridiculous “My meta-commentary is more clever than yours, how do you like that!” aspect of Phillips’ commentary, there’s a pragmatic reality here. It hardly needs to be said that if Young had indeed put someone else’s slapdash portrait of himself up on the wall, the judges would have destroyed him. It may be a cute idea for Richard Phillips to trot out after the fact—a neat little thought experiment about the subject-artist power dynamic that Young speaks of earlier in the show—but come on. Only Miles Mendenhall could get away with those kind of premise-defying antics (although his ideas tended to be more complex than this). And Young is not Miles.

Kymia’s turn. China thinks that Kymia’s portrait is cartoony, but after China met the antique dealers in real life, she decided that they are “cartoons,” too, and therefore Kymia’s art is good. Hey, since the people themselves were cartoons, maybe Kymia should have just stood them in front of the wall at the gallery show and declared, “This placement of them by me constitutes portraiture.” Look, everyone, I’m an art genius! This is fun!

Kymia wins the challenge. She does not win any cash, however, on account of she is not Young. By the way, Young is in. Dusty is the first one cut, which comes as no surprise—the “maybe crumbling M&Ms are awesome” fakeout by the show’s editors was never convincing. Dusty deserves to go, but in all seriousness, he did his fellow grade-school art teachers proud in the competition, and it has been nice to watch him make it this far. 

It’s down to Sara and Lola. China announces the final verdict: Sara is in. That means Lola is out. She takes it hard and breaks into sobs. Nobody has the heart to tell her she doesn’t need to do that anymore.

Stray Observations:

  • Young: “These are my boyfriend’s scissors. Every time I use them, it’s like I’m holding his hands.”
  • Am I the only one who thought that Bob (the husband in the antique-store pair) looked like an old version of Dusty? 
  • And now, your Strange Simon de Pury YouTube Video Of The Week. I admit, when I started doing this, it was just a dumb gag, and I figured I would run out of Simon videos within the month. But the weirdness of Simon’s online-video career may be inexhaustible. I’m finding Simon clips that are strange in ways that I never would have imagined. To wit: This week’s selection and its incredibly disturbing video glitch. I can’t embed it, but you can watch it here.

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