Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Ripped From The Headlines”
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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Ripped From The Headlines”

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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist

“Ripped From The Headlines”

Season 2, Episode 5

“WAKE UP, you sleepyheads!” It’s time for another early-morning Simon de Pury adventure! Today, everyone is going to the New York Times building. No, not the one in Manhattan. That one hasn’t allowed basic-cable across the doorstep since they let Jason Jones of The Daily Show run wild in their hallowed halls. Instead, the artists are going to the Times’ printing plant in Queens, out past the airport. They ride there together in a big old van, and Simon not only rides along with them, he appears to enjoy it. Endlessly endearing, this man.

Lola is semi-excited to be at the printing press. Her family always had a subscription to the Times: “Instead of watching cartoons in the morning, my mom would force me to read the front page,” she says. Her tale of familial strife is not quite as heartbreaking as some others we’ve heard this season. Bayeté marvels at the “modernized facility,” which sounds a little odd given that they’re making newspapers, the symbol of media obsolescence. But then again, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the electric-boxes-in-a-room-somewhere that transmit this high-tech paperless Web 3.0 Internet publication’s podcasts and wordcasts and the like, so who am I to judge?

China shows up. She engages in actual funny banter with Sucklord, telling him to “use the Force!” Sucklord says, “I’ve been forbidden to use the force, so….” Everybody is amused. China’s Emmy reel this year will be these 12 seconds and nothing else.

The artists are led to a pile of newspapers that nobody wanted—it is a very large pile! Their challenge is to create a piece of art inspired by a newspaper headline. The winner will have his or her work placed in the real New York Times building in Manhattan. And there’s a startling bonus prize of $20,000 from some magazine that does not get its money’s worth out of this product placement, as I do not remember what it is.

The final artwork has to physically incorporate the headline. China has to physically incorporate herself into a Bloody Mary somewhere, so she bounces. Heidi Klum would have stayed, China. Especially since the artists are all scrabbling around on a factory floor, so there is a high potential for injury.

It is a rule of reality TV that whenever there’s a mad-scramble component to a challenge, there always has to be one guy who refuses to take part in the frenzy and imagines himself to be above the fray as a result. The Sucklord fills that role tonight. He nonchalantly takes a paper and then sits down to read it, because this is what people do, of course! Scoff scoff harrumph. The plan works to perfection, as the process of reading a newspaper gives The Sucklord a breakthrough idea: to make a piece of art about a newspaper.

For his inspiration, Young selects a story about subversive Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a choice that could go one of two ways: He could suffer from the implicit comparison to a vastly more accomplished artist, or he could benefit by playing up an Important Issue that relates directly to the art world. But the latter would never happen. Why, that would be like making a big poster that merely says “PROP 8” et cetera, et cetera, I assume you see where I’m going with this, just as you can see where Work Of Art is going with this.

Back in the studio, Lola inhales a little too much glue as she crafts a papier-mâché sword, and it makes her giggly. She yelps, “I might as well be a milliner, or whatever the word for weapon-maker is!” Oddjob from Goldfinger finds nothing wrong with this statement.

For his Ai Weiwei piece, Young tries to erase the headlines from his newspapers with bleach, because you know, censorship. When that doesn’t work, he switches to blacking out the newspapers entirely and replacing their text with his own headline: “Where is Ai Weiwei?” Thus Young produces a nuanced commentary on the plight of Ai Weiwei, specifically as it regards the not knowing of where he is.

Simon arrives for his studio visit and begins with Lola. They are both mystified by the fact that her work-in-progress is not, for once, a total disaster. “I’ve learned with you, Lola, to always wait for the show,” Simon says. “But this time you seem much more advanced than I’ve ever seen you.” Lola is “immediately terrified” by Simon’s interest in her piece, as it is indeed eerie. It’s like when you get on the highway during rush hour and there’s almost no traffic—something must be terribly wrong.

Over at Sarah K.’s workspace, Simon notes that she is the only remaining contestant who has not been to a crit. He encourages her to break her streak of mediocrity. She says that she would like to be on the good end of the crit, and the fact that the editors show her saying this over and over is a pretty clear sign that she is going to end up in the bottom three. 

The Sucklord receives yet another dose of hard truth. Simon says, “What have the judges been asking to see from you?” The Sucklord says that they do not want to see any Star Wars stuff. And he is proud to say that he is acing that test. The lack of Star Wars is all squared away. Like a remedial-class teacher patiently waiting for the correct answer, Simon stands there with a “Yes, go on…” look on his face. The Sucklord thinks. They also “don’t want to see literal translations of things,” he says.

Correct! Simon casts his gaze down to The Sucklord’s work, which is a cruddy wooden newspaper purportedly inspired by a story about BP, and says, “For me, that is pretty literal. I mean, it couldn’t be more literal than that.” Simon suggests, without apparent sarcasm, “Maybe you could transform it into something looking impressive.” That would indeed be a good starting point.

Simon makes a big announcement: Dusty and Bayeté are moving into the penthouse tonight at The Dillon. Because of the way he phrases it, at first “the penthouse” seems like a special place, as if Dusty and Bayeté are getting a reward because at least one of them is pretty great. But no, they are just moving all the guys into the same apartment. This would really shake up the house dynamics, I assume, if we had any awareness of house dynamics.

Looking to reboot his project, Sucklord asks the other artists if it is okay for him to change the headline that serves as the inspiration for his piece. Everyone’s cool with it, except Michelle, who says, “That’s like changing the rules.” It’s hard to figure how letting someone change their topic midstream would offer an advantage—they still have to start from scratch with half the time. Plus, we’re talking about The Sucklord here. Judging by the past four weeks, it’s pretty clear that no matter which headline he chooses, the results are not going to be that great (which is maybe why everyone else assents so readily to his desire for a change). The Sucklord is a talented artist and seems like a great guy, but this is apparently not the environment in which he produces his best work.

Yet Michelle does not relent, in one of the few moments of inter-artist discord we’ve seen this season. The Sucklord does not raise a stink, further burnishing his good-egg credentials. On Lola’s advice, though, he does scrap his current piece. “I spent the last five hours on shit,” he says, “ripping off an artist I don’t even like.” (Namely, Robert Rauschenberg.)

In a testimonial, Lola coos and flutters once again over her supposed crush. “Obviously I like The Sucklord, and his insecurity makes him more appealing in a way, so I don’t want The Sucklord to go away.” No, of course she doesn’t, because she is a camera-time vampire who has identified the most TV-friendly member of the group and has sunk her fangs in deep.

Given an entire day to line up a single door with one (1) other door, and despite a 50-50 chance of stumbling into the right answer by pure chance, Bayeté realizes at midnight that he has painted the wrong side of one door in his golden rectangle of pathos.

Young mentions that his mother has cancer. Oh no, the sick relative. Are they—are they setting him up for the WIN?

The Sucklord is not confident in his new piece, a pile of wooden blocks painted like stacks of $100 bills. It’s hard to go right with fake money. Also, at this stage, the work does not incorporate the newspaper as required. Kymia tells him to make the bill wrappers out of newspaper. He goes along with it and tells the camera, “I have to explain why the money is on the bills like that. So I come up with this idea of, oh, well, the Times is guilty of letting BP off the hook, so they’re tied up in this thing, and I don’t believe any of that.” It’s the most open, least shameless bullshitting in the history of the show.

Dusty says, “I would like that money. My wife, we’d probably get pregnant again.” Yes, nice human-interest angle there, Dusty, but adding another crotch loaf to the Dusty clan does not even come close to trumping a sick mother. Come on, cancer mom obviously goes home with the win. Don’t you have an ailing/dead relative. Or even a pet? Work with us. 

Kymia’s plaster-and-newspaper coffin, based on a story about a Long Island serial killer, is extremely heavy. This is not so interesting, except for the fact that when Dusty tries to lift it, he says “Mercy!” in the most aw-shucks howdy-do way. In that moment, he makes Kenneth from 30 Rock look like Charles Bronson. It is utterly adorable, so it becomes this week’s Clip That Bravo Shows A Few Hundred Times.

In the pre-gallery-show silly segment, we learn that Sarah K has a loud, boisterous voice and laugh. “I think she just grew up having a really loud voice,” Young says. It is the most penetrating insight he will offer in this episode.

The guest judge is Adam McEwen. Some of his most famous works are obituaries of living people—mildly fun fact: he used to work for a newspaper where writing obits was part of his job—so he is a perfect match for the Times challenge. Work Of Art is pretty good at procuring guest judges who make for a tidy fit in the theme of the week.

Bill looks at Young’s bundled black newspapers with “Where is Ai Weiwei?” pasted on the top. “I think it really is about, how do you keep this story in the headlines?” he says. And of course it would be fascinating for a work to explore the difficulty of keeping people’s attention on low-visibility, long-term problems like human rights—especially in this case, since the sustained global attention on the Ai Weiwei incarceration is largely responsible for his release.

But I am not seeing the level of thoughtfulness that Bill perceives in Young’s work. I see a clumsy, vague statement about censorship that conveniently attaches itself to an issue with huge currency in the art world. There is a world of interesting art to be made from the relationship between Ai Weiwei and China; this isn’t it. And I’m not questioning the authenticity of Young’s concern for this issue. I do perceive a laziness and flatness to both this and his Prop 8 work, though.

China says, “Thank you for a very newsworthy show,” a line she wrote herself in her ongoing pursuit of an executive producer credit. The three good little children are Young, Dusty, and Lola.

Dusty’s piece is executed well, recasting Americans as gloomy silhouettes in a nation of wadded-up trash. But the message does not extend much beyond “bad economy is sad economy.” Jerry sums it up best in an inadvertently backhanded compliment: “Bam, something sort of depressing is going on here.”

Lola’s piece is the best of the show. She has redrawn photographs from the Libyan conflict, exaggerating certain aspects (like the oldness of the weapons, which is the focus of the article) and placing written labels throughout that use a simple, raw language. There are also some weapons made of newspaper that Lola made mainly to fulfill the requirements of the challenge.

The spindly drawing style reads terribly on TV, but the closeups we get show that her commentary can be cutting. My favorite is the shadowy figures in the background of the photo that Lola labels “SHADOWY FIGURES,” pointing up their anonymous value as a storytelling tool for the press outlet that published the photo (i.e., the Times).

Jerry is excited by this technique: “Boy, have you opened up a way of looking at photographs that you should really go into, and make this your own. It’s massive.” I don’t know that I’d say “massive,” but I agree that she has hit on something.

Young wins. “Young strikes again. It’s like a punch in the stomach,” Dusty says. Yup. In retrospect it does seem inevitable. Dusty’s piece literally crumples up newspapers. Lola’s work deconstructs the metanarrative of a media outlet packaging a conflict for consumption by its readers. And Young’s thing positions the newspaper as an essential, world-changing beacon of information. I would like to think that the Times is brave enough to handle Lola’s critique—they DID let The Daily Show work them over, after all—but maybe the pat message of Young’s piece is too perfect for the judges to resist.

Time for the naughty children. They start with The Sucklord, because he is an old hand at this. He tries to bullshit them for a while, using words like “greed,” “corruption,” and “complicit-cy” (noun. the state of being in partnership with a milliner). Bill shuts him down. “It plays into every easy conspiracy anyone has ever had about the media.”

Sarah K., who is visibly stunned to learn that she is in the bottom three, comes next. Sarah’s work is an intricately recut jumble of words from an article about an author who went mad. It’s a pretty tame exercise, but Sarah really sinks herself when she makes the classic Work Of Art mistake of putting some stuff on the floor and also leaning it against the wall. The judges can deal with stuff that’s on the floor, and things entirely on the wall are obviously OK. Leaning stuff looks lazy to them, however, so they hate it.

China says how much she likes the part of the work is on the wall—a small jumbled headline—but how she hates the art that is leaning. She points at the leaner portion of the word jumble: “I couldn’t figure that out, and I wasn’t interested, really, in trying to figure that out.” The only important thing in art is what works, and that art is just LYING THERE! GET A JOB, LOSER ART.

Bayeté’s work is a pair of church doors painted gold, based on a Times review of the musical Sister Act 2. (Note: If you are reading and haven’t seen the episode, the previous sentence is not a joke.) China wonders why the doorknobs are all misaligned, and Bayeté explains that he painted the wrong side of one of the doors. “You could have just flipped it upside down and painted the other side,” says guest judge McEwen. Bayeté is rendered speechless by this thunderclap of wisdom.

Jerry complains, “Nobody on earth is ever going to know that it’s about a theatre review.” Look, I dislike Bayeté’s hot mess as much as the next guy, but I fail to see why this matters.

The judges confer. McEwen is embarrassed by the baldness of The Sucklord’s B.S. session: “The story that the sculpture was proposing was clearly not the story he was giving. … It was painful.” But he is even more disheartened by Bayeté’s doors, saying, “The more you knew about it, the less was there.” Jerry seconds this sentiment: “You’re just left with these silly doors!” That actually makes Bayeté’s work sound kinda great.

Finally, the three terribles stand in the firing line. China fakes out the home audience by saying “Sarah…you’re safe,” momentarily taunting us with a dismissal that would be nearly as deranged as Young’s win. But no, it is finally Bayeté’s time to go.

The Sucklord is not too relieved. “It’s painfully obvious,” he says, “that the only reason I’m still here is that there’s always been one person who made a piece worse than mine.” Next week, The Sucklord’s journey continues as America tunes in to see whether one man can second-worst his way to the top.

Stray Observations:

  • Does anyone know why bleaching newspaper proved so ineffective? I was surprised by how little difference it made in the appearance of the page.
  • Not many people can pull off a double-breasted suit like Simon. Also, does he wear a hearing aid? I think I spotted one.
  • The Sucklord, on Bayeté’s doors: “Wow, if I go through there, there’ll be heaven on the other side, right?” Bayeté: “No.” The Sucklord: “’Kay.”
  • Some guy who doesn’t know what to say about art at the gallery show: “Oh, this is SO INTERESTING!”
  • And now your Strange Simon de Pury YouTube Video Of The Week. In this edition, a jet-lagged Simon is interviewed by a woman who asks him questions like, “You are a serious businessman, but you also play music? How about that? How do you mix that stuff?” and then does not understand a word he says in response. Simon is exceedingly patient and polite. QUESTION: Do you believe him when he says that he feels “totally wonderful”?