I told a friend today that I was about to restart my Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist reviews for the show’s second season. “Oh, I can’t watch that show,” he said—elaborating that he had a fundamental problem with its premise, the way it violated the idea of “art.” We were standing in a cacophonous ballroom, surrounded by HDTVs at maximum brightness, each one singeing pre-release video games into our eyeballs. Some of the games exhibited the potential to be profound (or at least provocative), but many of them were corporate bilge. My friend, a PR representative, was there to promote them all, regardless. The name of the company he was representing today? Electronic Arts.
The idea of “art” can take a punch. It’s one of the wonderful things about art. I understand the sentiments of people who are mortified by this strange show, but I don’t join them. If they regard art as this fragile, sacred entity, the world must be a perpetually disappointing place, always prompting them to reach for the smelling salts. A work by the German artist Gerhard Richter is set to be sold for millions of dollars this week; the artist himself considers the notion “daft.” That’s just it. Much of the art scene is daft, and Work Of Art dispenses with any pretensions otherwise. The contestants’ challenge, as ever, is to express something genuine amid all the layers of artifice.
I’m not saying everyone needs to like this show. It’s formulaic and often crass, albeit less crass than most reality fare. Plus, it’s ludicrous. But as you’ve gathered by now, that’s among the reasons I enjoy it.
This season begins with the traditional meet-the-contestants mating dance. The artists are released from their holding pen, one by one, every 30 seconds or so—just long enough for us to get a whiff of their character type but not so long that we care about them. Work Of Art knows that the audience has a limited capacity for caring, so it shepherds that resource.
Dusty is this season’s appointed bumpkin. “I never been to the Brooklyn Museum until now,” he says. Can you imagine! It takes all kinds, I suppose.
Ugo is French. Young Sun is the first one to get naked. (The camera lingers near the self-portrait featuring his youthful rear end. That ass gets a lot of screen time.) Leon is deaf. Lola is the hot one. The Sucklord is named The Sucklord, as opposed to Jazz-Minh, who is named that.
They look over each other’s self portraits. Bayeté explains to The Sucklord that his self-portrait is an image of himself having a debate with himself about being on a reality show. We see a few seconds of the painfully trite audition video from which the image is taken, and indeed, it is Bayeté debating with himself. He’s like the valedictorian at a high school graduation who begins his speech, “As I sat down to write this speech…” and fancies himself a rhetorical innovator. The Sucklord looks at the two Bayetés in the picture and asks, “Which is the guy that’s against the reality show?” Bayeté explains that it’s the Bayeté in the baseball cap. “He lost, didn’t he?” The Sucklord deadpans. I think I’m going to like this Sucklord fellow.
Host China Chow arrives to welcome the artists. Later, at the Upper East Side lab where China was genetically engineered to be the ideal New York socialite-cum-Bravo reality television hostess, people in white coats will review this footage. One of them will tap the screen with a pen and nod approvingly at China’s peppiness. Splicing in that voice-modulation gene over the summer really did the trick! They are almost ready to take her out of beta.
China introduces Simon de Pury, who has graciously taken time away from his main career as a Swiss motivational-cartoon character (he encourages children to eat fresh fruits and nuts) to mentor the artists. To ensure that everyone knows how cool he is, Simon pointedly mentions that he has previously purchased and auctioned off works by The Sucklord, who creates subversive toy art like hot-pink, homosexual Star Wars stormtrooper figurines. “Be bold! Be brave! Be amazing!” he cries, sending exclamation points ricocheting around the Brooklyn Museum lobby.
Simon and China lead everyone to a small gallery deeper in the Brooklyn Museum. She shoves everyone into the room. “Enjoy the art!” China says, in a weird way, as if she secretly farted in the artists’ soup. But to my knowledge, she has not. Rather, in a caper worthy of Dick Clark’s Bloopers And Practical Jokes, she has forced the artists to view “bad” art!
The room is filled with kitschy items like an amateur painting of Gandalf, a contorted sculpture of a sad girl (at least she appears to be sad), and this inexplicable gray-blue tableau with mirror fragments. This must have been a fun challenge to shop for.
China says that the artists’ task is to take the bad art and transform it into something that is “worthy of hanging in the gallery.” Of course, the pieces are already implicitly worthy of that, by virtue of the fact that they are hanging in a gallery, as we can all readily observe on television. Shifting their context has caused them to be perceived as art objects, and therefore, the challenge ought to end as soon as it begins.
Yet it does not! The contestants will be compelled to transform art that is not “art” into art that is “art.” The most farcical challenge yet, it’s Work Of Art’s way of telling the conscientious objectors to its premise that they can go pound sand. China’s “worthy of hanging” line is about the most elitist wording that the writers could have used to describe the challenge, so it appears that the show is actively trying to piss people off this season.
Everyone grabs a piece of failure to rescue with their brilliant artistry and heads back to the workroom. The Sucklord marvels at the Lord Of The Rings painting he picked. “If I had walked up to that at a real art show, I would have loved it,” he says. He is smart enough to have identified the philosophical rabbit hole that underlies the challenge, but not clever enough to capitalize on it. In fact, he has put himself in a tough spot by choosing a work that he sees no need to alter or improve.
Kathryn, whose self-portrait depicted her holding a bunch of fake guts, decides to turn her mirror-painting thing into a bunch of fake guts. So we know what her deal is, I guess.
Simon de Pury arrives to stoke the artists’ creative fires. Simon offers good feedback in general, but my favorite part of his approach is the way that he manages to cap off each consultation with a flourish that mixes his wild enthusiasm with a devastatingly raw statement of reality. They are phrases that have the rhythm of an inspirational slogan yet are also tinged with depression. I like to imagine cubicle slaves across Switzerland printing out some of these sayings and taping them on their computer screens:
“You can either do something pretty fantastic, or you can just go too far and kill it. Good luck, and go for it!”
“You should really just formulate your idea properly, and then try to execute it!”
“I think you should continue and not worry too much at this stage, and we will see what the outcome is!”
Simon strides up to The Sucklord and greets him as “Morgan,” because Simon is a benevolent patron of The Sucklord’s work, and therefore, he assumes they will be pals. However, The Sucklord asks that Simon call him The Sucklord, and Simon verbally rolls his eyes: “Do you prefer me to call you ‘your lordship’?” The Sucklord responds, without humor, that as long as it derives from his official title, it will be fine. Simon grins politely and makes a mental note to flush a certain gay stormtrooper figurine down the toilet when he gets home tonight.
“Have you ever heard of Keith Haring?” Simon asks French dude Ugo, who is reinventing an ornate dragon carving in the style of Keith Haring If Keith Haring Had Not Been So Great At Art. Ugo says that yes, he has heard of that person, but he’s confident that he’s doing something different. He’s the only one.
This year, the artists reside at a Midtown condo complex called The Dillon. They are in awe of this place. Ooh, it has beds! And a kitchen! And—okay, I have to admit those are some pretty sweet bathrooms. Tew is rooming with Young Sun, who happens to be of the homosexual persuasion. “I’ve never lived with a gay guy before,” Tew says. “I don’t know how this is gonna work.” Presumably, Tew sleeps on his stomach that night, to minimize the chance that his penis will accidentally slip into one of his roommate’s orifices. Can’t be too careful.
Bayeté mulls his handiwork. He has rearranged a mixed-media portrait of a woman and pasted some miniature dollar bills on it. “I am definitely taking a risk delving into subject matter that could deal with identity and race,” he says, as if anyone on this show has ever made art about anything other than identity or race.
Before the artists’ very first pretend gallery opening, we meet the judges. There’s Jerry Saltz, who writes art criticism and acts out “Yertle The Turtle” in a perpetual game of charades. He’s joined by Bill Powers. Bill has an imaginary clock in his head that counts the minutes until the cameras turn off and he can rock bong hits in the bathroom with China. On occasion, he turns his attention away from the imaginary clock to offer commentary on art. The guest judge is Mary Ellen Mark.
After some mingling and the obligatory Sarah Jessica Parker appearance, China picks six artists out of the crowd and tells three of them that they have won the big prize of the judges thinking they are super. The chosen ones include Sara J., who took her little homunculus sculpture and made it the subject of a watercolor drawing, and Lola, whose cold, spare, weathered composition was practically guaranteed to get the judges hot and bothered. (See: Miles Mendenhall, season one.) Titled “I Wanted To Live In A Mountain, But Then I Realized Mountains Move Too,” Lola’s ragged, fragmentary deconstruction of a mountain scene does convey a sense of isolation, and I like it even if it feels a little familiar.
The winner is Michelle, who pairs her totem-pole-like sculpture with an intricate paper sculpture of a skeleton laid to rest. Her work has the most powerful narrative of the evening, transforming a cheap lawn ornament into the death marker of a craftsman. “Is this piece personal to you?” China asks/insists during the critique, and Michelle obliges her by relating her story of a harrowing car accident that recently sent her to the hospital for months. That’s how you lock down the win.
The three black sheep are Bayeté, Ugo, and The Sucklord. Bayeté pushes the clunkiness of his black/white woman and dollar-bill collage to the next level by placing them both behind prison bars, creating a veritable cavalcade of clichés.
The judges light into him. Jerry wrote at great length last year about his angst over turning into a TV personality, but he seems to have found some peace on that front, as he ratchets up the camera-friendly bitchiness tonight. He’s on point, too. “You created a prison of meaning,” he says. “It did push a button, but it pushed a button that’s always pushed.” Bayeté protests. His apparent rationale is that he should get partial credit for pushing the button really hard.
Ugo’s red-on-red-on-red thing is Keith Haring-y, as expected. “They say a good artist borrows, and great artists steal,” says Bill. “This feels like something borrowed to me.” So, wait, Ugo is a good artist? Just because it’s the only quote you can remember doesn’t mean you ought to use it, Bill.
Ugo discloses that he hid China’s name somewhere in the line patterns in his piece. She demands to know where it is: “I’m gonna find it!” she says. “I hope you find it, and it takes you five hours,” Ugo replies, with an edge that’s maybe accidental and maybe not. At that moment, it seems like the whole painting was just an elaborate way for Ugo to hold up three fingers and tell China to read between the lines.
You could argue that The Sucklord took his kitschy inspiration and made it even more kitschy by rendering an action figure of the flea-market Gandalf. That by amplifying its outsider status, he distanced it from elite conceptions of artistic worth. But The Sucklord does not mount this defense. Rather, his tack is to tell the judges that he made something crappy.
He is saved by Mary Ellen Mark who, to Jerry’s chagrin, likes the piece. She says that it “spoke to her,” and Jerry asks her what it said. She replies, “It said, ‘Look at me.’” Why would Action-Figure Gandalf want Mark to look at him, though? That’s easy: because he has something to say to her.
The judges talk it over. Pouring it on thick, Jerry says that Ugo “tackled nothing that hasn’t already been seen a billion times before.” Mark once again praises The Sucklord’s piece, at which point Jerry puffs his cheeks and contorts his face like a constipated chipmunk, as if to say, “Look at me.”
China brings back the three men. “One of you is leaving us tonight,” she says, putting on her I Am Being Serious Now Face. How I missed that Face! It returns, as stiff and unconvincing as ever. She also uses the Face to bid Ugo goodbye. (It’s too early in the season for the I Am Being Sad Now Tears.)
Ugo asks if, before he leaves, he can see what his piece would look like without the red background. With the judges’ consent, he does so. The result: less red. “That’s all it takes!” China says with forced awe, because she senses that it will be a good teevee moment if she acts like a dramatic transformation has taken place. Is this the “instinct” thing that the producers have been telling her about? She will try this!
Jerry ruins China’s magical moment by pointing out that Ugo’s thing is still pretty bad, and everyone goes home.
- When an artist wears a tank top, you certainly do get an idea of how much shoulder hair he has.
- One of Young Sun’s fortune cards in his live installation reads, “I’m throwing you under the bus,” a noted reality-show cliché. That’s some high-level commentary.
- “I am a little worried about some of you, so I hope you get your act together! All the best!”
- How many times did Jerry want to utter the words “HOO BOY” and/or “OH, BROTHER” tonight? I count at least four.