Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Natural Talents”
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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Natural Talents”

I worried at the beginning of this episode that Work Of Art was running out of gas. The artists were greeted in their breakfast nook/penthouse not by walking sugar high Simon de Pury but rather by judge Bill Powers, who told them all to get in the damn car because they were going…who knows. Somewhere. He spoke with all the enthusiasm of a stepdad who had to get the kids up for school because mom felt like sleeping in today. “See you at the gallery show,” Bill said as he reached back for the doorknob, mentally composing the angry texts he would send to his agent during the Town Car ride back home.

The artists ended up at a Connecticut park, where China greeted them wearing her “brown ghost” costume from Halloween 1994. China looked lonely out there in the rain, although she was joined as usual by The Voice Of China Chow, dubbed over the footage whenever the producers decided that she didn’t hit that Prismacolor plug just right “in the moment”. The challenge, in true Work Of Art “eh, sure, that’ll work” fashion, was to create a work that incorporated a piece of nature.

From these dreary seeds grew a pretty good episode. With one entertaining exception, the imminence of the finale focused the artists more than we’d seen before. Even Miles had little energy to spend on extraneous stunts. He half-heartedly tossed out the notion of making mustard gas to grab some screen time but soon retreated to serious development of his piece. (The producers were so desperate for some Miles-related spectacle that they tossed in a gratuitous shot of his naked butt, which I’m sure was taped weeks earlier and saved for such an emergency.)

Abdi’s work, a charcoal-and-dirt drawing of himself, was the highlight. It was fueled by a three-step artistic epiphany. At the park, Abdi decided that he “needed to spend some time with God,” so he read his Bible a little bit. Then he picked up a pretty shell. Then he made an art thing. Result: masterpiece.

Or, if not a masterpiece, at least a striking portrait that went a level beyond anything Abdi had produced to this point. Abdi let the excess dust from his drawing drift to the bottom of the image and accumulate as he drew it. The resulting trail of gray made his self-portrait look like he was rising from the dirt into a plane occupied only by himself. Given how often Abdi has name-dropped his buddy God who lives in a superhero palace in the sky, it’s odd that we’d never seen any of that spirituality in his work. But it was here tonight, in an honest, unforced execution, and it clearly earned him a spot in the final gallery show.

Equally deserving of her ultimate fate was Jaclyn, who couldn’t kick the virus she’d had for a couple episodes running now and, more to the point, was ready to tap out of the show altogether. Simon was hating life during his mentor session with Jaclyn, when she had nothing to show him and responded to his inquiries like a sulky seventh-grader who’d locked herself in the janitor’s closet. “I certainly hope you will get your act together,” Simon chided. “Yeah, I guess I’ll get it together,” Jaclyn said. And Simon’s facial expression fell into something approximating “OK, screw this.”

Jaclyn’s explanation for her rock-on-a-pipe seascape made no sense—“The rocks getting hit with the water felt kind of confined”—but in any case, it achieved the opposite of what she might have intended. She took a rock from the beach and attached it to a brass circle, turning it into a goofy, oversized wedding ring, and then she dangled this odd sculpture from a pipe. The background was a photograph of the sea straddling a corner, because Jaclyn believes that corner=instant meaning. Completely missing her professed theme of liberation, the final piece gave the impression of a hopeless wife who went to the beach to enjoy one last sunset before hanging herself—it was melodrama standing in for insight.

I struggled with Nicole’s piece—as did the judges, since she was this evening’s other evictee—but not necessarily because it was bad. She built a segmented dome coated with dead plant materials she gathered at the park; at the center was a small illuminated orb. From above, it resembled the symbol for radioactivity; I have no idea if that means anything. She said that the piece was intended as a representation of her father’s Native American heritage. I didn’t see that, either. I just couldn’t reconcile this work into a coherent reading, and while that could be a sign that it’s a challenging piece of art (which I like), I think the truth is that the dome, like a lot of Nicole’s work this season, had intriguing elements that didn’t come together.

That said, Peregrine’s tree-person full of horny teenagers was no classic, either. Yet during the last commercial break, I guessed that Peregrine would make it and Nicole wouldn’t. (Only my wife can confirm this, of course, but I swear it’s true you guys.) Here’s why: Before the season premiere, I was on a media Q-and-A conference call with some of the Work Of Art cast. In response to a question about the quality of the contestants, Bill mentioned that some of the judges were moved to tears by one artist’s work in the final gallery show. Miles is the most talented creator in this group, but all else being equal, the artist most likely to elicit a strong emotional reaction is Peregrine. Put simply, she’s seen some shit, man. I can’t picture OCD Boy showing me something that would make me shed a tear, but Peregrine? Yeah, I bet there’s some disturbing baggage from that San-Francisco-art-commune upbringing. If she can use the extra time afforded by the final challenge to overcome some of her raggedy-ass compositional shortcomings, she could steal the $100,000 prize.

Probably not, though, because: Miles. Tonight’s study of a fungus, with a construction too elaborate to recount here (there was an enormous spike paddle and a lot of bleach), was not his best work. Yet it was still thought-provoking, iterating on different faces of death—impalement, disinfection, quiet decomposition—and uniting them all with the motif of the metastasizing fungus. As Bill Powers pointed out, the work depended too much on procedure. It succeeded in spite of that because it left a number of satisfying connections for us to make as viewers. While it has been fun to break down Miles’ appearance on the show as performance art, his reality-TV character study has made it easy to lose sight of the fact that the “official” works he made were quite good. They’re all guided by a quiet logic that serves as a spark for introspection. That’s why Miles is the favorite to win the finale next week—also because, come on, did you SEE that butt?

Stray Observations:

— “Artists, can I ask you to join me and get ready for LLLLAAAAASSSTT show before the FEE-NAH-LAY?” When the season is over, I will miss Simon most of all.

Time did a story about Work Of Art. From the opening paragraph:

Shortly before 10 p.m. on most Wednesdays, some two dozen artists and art aficionados can be found draped across mismatched couches in the back room of Soda, a bar in Brooklyn, waiting for the opening credits of Work of Art to appear on a big screen. […] “This construct is so false!” one viewer exclaims, as the contestants are judged on their art—a typical comment for the evening.

There are many places to find fault in Work Of Art, but the “it’s all so contrived” complaint is awfully unpersuasive, because what isn’t contrived? Show me an artist who believes that their corner of the art world is free from contrivance, and I will show you a naïve asshole yelling at the TV in the back room of a Brooklyn bar. Contrivance isn’t an inherently bad thing; artificial limitations can produce genuine insights.

— Part of the fun of watching Jaclyn has been looking forward to her defense of each week’s behavior on her blog. Her entry on “Natural Talents” is an interesting read if not always convincing.

— I noticed Peregrine’s lisp much more this week than I had before. Maybe because she got more camera time?

— Simon on seeing Miles’ death-puncture device: “When I walked in, I thought this was just a way to prepare your cheesecake.” Wait, how the hell is cheesecake made? 

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