Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: "Open To The Public"
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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: "Open To The Public"

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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist

"Open To The Public"

Season 1, Episode 6

I had a hard time getting excited for this episode, in large part because I find most public art so boring—and I have to believe this is the majority view, no? I mean, OK, the idea of public art is exciting and noble and whatnot, but in execution it’s usually trite. This is a corner of the art world where the paragon of success is cows painted by an assortment of artists and placed around a city. Painted cows are easy, won’t get anybody fired, and are incapable of offending because they express almost no perspective whatsoever. A few years ago in New York, they had painted Statues of Liberty. I was in London a couple months back, and they had painted elephants. At heart, they are all cows. My take on this episode’s challenge—to create an object for a public outdoor space—was that the artists needed to avoid creating painted cows. One team managed to do this, and naturally, that team lost.

The artists were split up into two groups by random draw, so at long last it was time for the dreaded team challenge. One person from the losing team would be kicked off, and one person on the winning team would be declared the “winner,” with the prize of a hearty pat on the back. Nicole, Ryan, Mark, and Abdi formed the Red Team, also known as the team who created some boring pointy things that the producers barely bothered with because the other team was so busy fighting. Miles, Peregrine, Jaclyn, and Erik formed the Blue Team, also known as the team that had fighting.

The conflict arose, as foretold in last week’s promos, from Erik, who finally released his pent-up frustration in Miles’ direction. Regular viewers may be aware by now that Erik is not a trained artist. He mentions this from time to time. In his eyes, it had become a catch-all justification for the failings of everyone in sight. Not only could Erik’s lack of training be blamed for his own deficiencies, but the shortcomings of the other contestants (snobbiness, narrow-mindedness, being good artists) could be blamed on the fact that they do have training! The traumatic unraveling of this Gordian knot was the focus of the episode.

Erik’s most immediate source of anger was the fact that the other members of the Blue Team rejected his attempts to contribute. They decided to make a treehouse-y lounge chair that, when installed at the Canal Street site, compelled its occupants to view an empty patch of sky. Erik seemed to have two main ideas. One was a vague concept of a vine climbing from the ground to the top of the structure, à la an actual treehouse (?), and the other was to create a snakeskin pattern of sheet metal on the back of the structure. When asked by his teammates why the snakeskin pattern would add to the piece, Erik channeled Kenny Powers and answered that “snakeskin is cool.” Yet the team still rejected Erik’s idea, obviously because they were a bunch of jerks—in Erik’s parlance, “art pussies”—who are intimidated by his outsider brilliance. (In fairness, the snakeskin pattern probably would have looked better than the hodgepodge of metal squares they ended up with. Or at least cooler.)

Erik spent the rest of the episode bitching, pouting, and generally being an awful person. He accused Miles of being an actor who’s playing for the cameras. This is true and, in my opinion, awesome. Miles is also a far more interesting artist. Erik left that part out.

Completing the grade-school-classroom dynamic, there was a weird side plot with a secret note. As Erik told his roommate Ryan and, eventually, the judging panel, Jaclyn slipped him a handwritten note to say that he needed to insist on his ideas and convince the team of their merits. But the note ended up enraging him because when he took it to heart and tried to sell his badass snakeskin visions the team they still weren’t impressed.

Typically, these competition shows will stretch out one little outburst with creative editing and repetition to make it look like a contestant has gone crazier than they actually have. But the Work Of Art producers had a wealth of footage here; no scrimping necessary. Once Erik cracked, he just kept going. To the bitter end, in fact. When Peregrine offered him an olive branch before his departure—“I look forward to seeing you again”—he replied, “I wish I could say the same.” And the whole room cringed because yeesh, what a dick.

After a while, as obnoxious and petulant as his behavior was, I felt for Erik. It was clear in Week One that the guy was out of his element, and it would be an understatement to say he struggled to find his place. He was exasperated, sleep-deprived, and utterly down on himself. At the end of the show, he said that he would have rather been kicked out for painting a clown on a palette than for the way it ultimately went down. Indeed, I think the judges would have been doing him a favor if he had been axed in Week One. But the untrained outsider hadn't served his purpose for the story yet. At the end of this episode, he had. So: gone.

This was not a big “ideas” episode, obviously, and it will probably further irritate the small, vocal contingency of commenters who contend that Work Of Art is somehow desecrating the idea of art. I don’t have much sympathy for that camp, mainly because art has taken much worse blows than a reality TV show, and it always emerges no worse for wear. Go ahead and desecrate, assault, mangle art. In one way, that’s what it’s there for. In any case, I view the show and the game less as a directed commentary and more as an experiment in a novel mode of producing art. So even when the results haven’t been brilliant, I’ve found it worthwhile to see how the contestants respond. Work Of Art reminds me of the earlier, superior Project Runway seasons in that it tries its damnedest to focus on the creative process amid the standard reality-show story lines.

All that said, this was not a terribly high-minded hour. It’s OK once in a while to really play up the drama, and that’s what this episode did. I don’t mind that there was no substantial reflection on the role of public art; what little pontification they had was stultifying anyway. (Most of it came from this week’s guest judge, a public-art bigwig whose name I didn’t get down because so so boring didn’t care boring.)

I do mind the judges’ ultimate decision, though, which was to award the drama-free Red Team the win. They created a series of black/white/gray trapezoids and pyramids that evoked the large- and small-scale sense of the space, of nature, of the city, whatever. It was gobbledygook. Jeanne, who I’ve come to realize is probably the most insightful judge, was spot-on when she compared the Red Team’s boring shapes to the worst of chintzy minimalist sculpture from the ’60s and ’70s. There is crude geometric junk like this—triangular painted cows—littering parks in ever major city.

It seems, then, that Jeanne was not a fan of the Red Team. Bill writes on his BravoTV Angelfire webpage that he “was OK awarding [the Blue Team] the victory and still sending Erik home, but the rules as laid out before us were that the person eliminated must be on the losing team,” so his vote was forced by a technicality. And in Jerry’s episode recap for the New York magazine site, he says that the Blue Team’s piece was “my winner, for sure.” That’s three members of the regular judging panel who apparently preferred the Blue Team’s work. China’s preferences were unclear because in the last 15 minutes of each episode, her job is to hate everything and everyone. (One of my favorite parts of the show, in fact, is watching the transition each week from Peppy China to Angry China.)

In essence, the combination of the team challenge and the individual ejection broke the game this week. Erik had to go, yet the Blue Team created the superior object. The original idea of the elevated, semi-enclosed bench was to hone the viewer’s focus on a blank piece of sky. As Miles noted, this concept made the piece serve as a continuation of his work from last week, in the sense of finding a respite amid the urban cacophony. Jerry pointed out to the team, though, that the patch of sky they chose was blank because that’s where the World Trade Center used to stand. My first reaction was that this detail made the Blue Team’s creation into something too heavy-handed, but on reflection, I think it ends up making the piece more complex—in spitting distance of “overwrought” but not quite there. Rather, it was the show’s treatment of Jerry’s observation, complete with gasps, tears, and a musical sting, that went over the top.

So the Blue Team didn’t deserve to lose, but given that Erik is finally gone and the winning team received no reward, the injustice feels pretty slight.

Stray Observations:

—Way too many of China’s lines were dubbed in post. It felt like almost half of the things she “said” in this episode were recorded in the booth after the fact, including the rationale for why the Blue Team lost. That’s just sloppy production.

—The episode-title writers continue to knock it out of the park. It took me a while to make the connection, but tonight’s episode is entitled “Open To The Public” because the artists created public art. Hope that saves you some head-scratching time.

—Abdi: “So many people are standing around the piece, and they’re just staring at it. I felt like Jesus for a minute.” Thus concludes the Work Of Art Bizarre Reference To Christianity for the week.