Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Sell Out”
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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Sell Out”

B

Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist

“Sell Out”

Season 2, Episode 8
B

Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist

“Sell Out”

Season 2, Episode 8

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Yup, Lola takes her clothes off this week, but Work Of Art gets naked, too. We’ve seen instances throughout the season, most of them involving Young, where the show asks the artists to create an effective piece of art yet rewards the artists who created the most marketable commodity. (Young himself gave his take on the “given challenge”/“real challenge” dichotomy in a comment here last month.) For one intriguing episode, Work Of Art drops the pretense. Not only is the most commercially successful team of artists given immunity from elimination this week, but also the show does not even make an effort to determine the most meritorious work.

After eating their bananas—do they have any other food in those condos?—the six remaining artists toddle on down to Tribeca. Lola remarks that it’s a hip neighborhood but is supposedly puzzled that they’re going there, because there are not many galleries in Tribeca. Of course, it’s not uncommon for the contestants to receive their marching orders in a non-gallery space, so why include Lola saying this? The underlying message: There are a lot of people who are willing to buy art here (hip people), but not enough establishments that provide it—a seller’s market! The artists will provide their brilliance to the notoriously art-starved denizens of downtown Manhattan, and surely they will be greeted as liberators.

As China outlines the rules, you get the sense that the producers intend to enjoy their episode of Work Of Art: The Next Great Apprentice and double down on the boiler-room capitalism vibe. The artists will have only five hours to shop and make their pieces for sale in the public. They must create a physical product. And another obnoxious cash prize, $30,000, goes to the team that makes the most money on the street (gross proceeds).

The artists must also present their work in the gallery afterward. So in theory, they must attempt to create work that will succeed in both a commercial and high-art setting. In practice, because of the time crunch, they all try to make anything that might have some chance of selling and opt to worry about the gallery-judging consequences later. I mean, supposedly the quandary is whether the artists would sell out or try to retain their dignity, but they volunteered to be contestants on a basic-cable reality show, so how much could they have valued their dignity in the first place?

Early on, there is a clear gulf between the marketable ideas and otherwise. Dusty wants to make T-shirts. Smart. People like things with armholes in things. Kymia outlines a plan to make postcards, and she points out that her customers can mail the postcard to a friend or loved one, which would be perfect if her target market were “characters in an American Girl novel.”

Lola intends to incorporate a naked picture of herself into her product, but we already knew that because Bravo has been telling us about it at every opportunity, like a middle-school kid who can’t stop telling his friends about this Playboy he found in the attic and oh you gotta come over and look at it there’s bare boobs and everything. Everyone at the network is excited that The Hot One will finally fulfill her unspoken contract—it did not please them that until now, we had seen more flesh from the skinny Asian kid than the nubile woman-child they hand-picked for the role.

Not one to be upstaged, Young shops for short shorts at American Apparel as he lauds his own ass, which he describes as “petite and round and pert.” I’d make a crack here, but anyone who saw the season première would be hard-pressed to argue with any of those three adjectives. It is the pertest ass I have ever seen in a video of a man’s father on his deathbed.

The salaciousness does not stop once the artists return to the workroom. Sarah K. makes T-shirts with nipples and “sort of hipster cool Native American kind of” headdresses that have feather penises on them. Dusty’s T-shirts feature a map of the USA emblazoned with what appears to be an uncircumcised Death Star laser. And Lola undertakes a Work Of Art ritual by getting naked in the bathroom, where her naughty parts are obscured in the TV image by superimposed flesh-colored shapes—a post-production technique far weirder than the traditional pixelation route.

As with Kymia early in the season, Lola’s actual breasts threaten to send society into a Caligula-esque spiral of decadence and must be censored, but life-size photographs of her breasts are A-OK. I guess that once the female form has been processed through TWO different layers of conglomerate-sanctioned mediation, it is suitable for viewing by America. Quite a culture we got here!

As time runs down, Kymia abandons her military-stencil “SUPPORT ARTISTS” postcard design, given that its hideousness encourages the opposite message (i.e., destroy artists at all costs). She decides to sell her signature instead. The gimmick is that someday her signature will be worth something. Kymia also wants her customers to give her their own signatures, which she will then feature in the gallery show. It is the type of idea that would be generated by a million art-school-student monkeys ruminating over a million bong hits. And it wouldn’t even take them very long. Like 10 minutes, tops.

Because Kymia is incorporating the works of others, she asks the other artists to approve her plan. The show isn’t clear on this, but I suspect she asks them because she has to ask. It has come up before on Work Of Art: If an artist intends to diverge from the letter of the law for a given challenge, they must first get clearance from their competitors first. Lola puts up a little bit of a stink, because she can.

Kymia wears her down, though, and Lola finally mutters, “Just do it, just do it! I don’t care.” In a testimonial, Lola says that she is going to “use this” to her advantage, oh ho ho, just you wait, she’s got something up her sleeve, wink-wink, you’re not gonna believe it. She’s got nothing.

What she does have, though, is a strong product and a gosh-I’m-so-fuckable! sales technique that she executes with ease. My two kittycats know how to look extra cute when they want something, and so does Lola. In their case, they want the outrageously expensive food we buy them; in Lola’s case, she wants a fellow in a tan microsuede jacket to buy some of her outrageously expensive artwork. He pays $100 for a naked picture of Lola with some text on top. “I am not the greatest salesperson, but luckily, Lola knows how to communicate with the public,” says Lola’s partner Sarah. Her word choice is more artful than anything in Sarah’s sad kiosk of spray-painted-nipple T-shirts and sub-Burger-King-grade paper crowns.

But there’s also Sara Jimenez, this season’s backup Hot One, who will be asked to serve if the designated Hot One is unable to fulfill her duties. When Microsuede Man (he’s like the Micro Machines man except instead of talking fast he buys mediocre art fast) makes his way over to Young and Sara’s table, he scoops up $220 of street cred that he can hang on his wall to impress arty-type dames.

That mad grab cleans out Sara’s inventory, so she offers to draw custom portraits of passersby for $10 a pop. This new venture proves popular. As quasi-guest-judge Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn will later remark, the simplicity of the street-portraiture trade is appealing, and Sara’s illustrations of her subjects are beautiful. They’re emblematic of the street-portrait form, conveying the artist’s own sensibility—purposeful yet relaxed, urban, Bohemian—while also bringing out some of the subject’s spirit. I’m envious of the spectators who got to watch the whole process unfold rather than seeing a few second-long snippets. Watching a talented artist draw a picture never gets old.

Simon makes an abbreviated visit, since there is not much advice for him to dispense at this point in the challenge. He finds Lola’s piece “attractive and gorgeous,” which makes her glow, and he says he’d be tempted to buy the best of Sara’s watercolors. Given that it is too late to redirect the artists’ work, Simon uses the Socratic method to express his disdain for the crappier efforts. Upon seeing Dusty’s “USA = upside-down cheese dog” composition, Simon says, “Okay, and you think it’s going to impress the judges?” He’s also skeptical of Kymia’s signatures: “You think that’s going to be strong enough to stay in the competition?” Both artists with some variation of “I hope so!” which is to say, “no.”

As the selling portion of the program draws to a close, we get a clip of Kymia in which she talks about a sudden rush of people buying Dusty’s T-shirts and speculates that maybe her team has a chance after all! Riiiight. I know you want to keep the suspense up and all, Work Of Art, but this is pretty desperate, even for you.

In a dissonant moment, we’ve suddenly got Dusty calling home to his wife and asking about the baby, and he cries, right before the show cuts to commercial. In the purposely crass context of the “Sell Out” episode, the effect is to remind us that the contestants themselves are salable products, too, and their emotions are, above all, marketing commodities.

Then, as if to drive the point home, the pre-gallery-show segment is NOTHING BUT crying people! Having primed the market, the producers unload their entire portfolio of human despair. Lola cries. The Sucklord cries. That poor woman with Crohn’s disease is summoned from oblivion to sob in that awkward, groaning convulsion we’ve seen so many times. If everything were still edited on Beta tape, that clip would have been worn thin from overuse, but in the digital era, it is as crisp as ever. Tears are now a fiat currency; television can print as many as it wants.

The best part is that mere minutes after this Faustian nightmare has been laid bare in the Video Parade Of Anguish, the gallery show begins, and we are invited to care about such things as beauty and art again, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And somehow, we can. This show is nuts.

The exhibition is an unremarkable affair. Attendees put forth various theories as to what the hell that thing is on Dusty’s map of America. My favorite guess is “burrito in a mailbox.”

Work Of Art tries to match guest judges to the theme of the episode, but what art-world figure would want to show up for “Sell Out” week? Hey, look, it’s Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn! She’ll work for scale. 

Young bowdlerizes his already-banal work by substituting paintings of men’s underwear for the underwear he actually sold. It’s an odd, narrow-minded choice, and the judges nail him for it. Jeanne is especially indignant at the implied condescension: “Is this your assumption? That we’re so limited that we can only see a painting as a work of art?” Let it never be said that Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn cannot perceive the aesthetic glories of cherry-red American Apparel briefs with googly eyes painted on them. Young’s take from the day: $129.

Sara’s crit begins with the Larry Flynt-iest shot of the night, an extreme closeup of the vulva in her watercolor. Everyone approves. Her total: $320, for a team total of $449.

Dusty says that he sold a bunch of T-shirts, but he didn’t sell very many signs. Jerry pounces: “Why didn’t they buy the sign? I think I know why! Because it’s awful!” Yeah, but Jerry, the T-shirts had the same awful design. I think people didn’t buy the sign because unless you’re building a Karl Marx Applebee’s (“Try our Proletarian Poppers Platter!”), you’re not likely to be in the market for ready-to-hang anti-establishment road signs.

China remarks that “This work feels like it’s very you, Dusty. You’ve used a map before, and you’ve also used an everyday object.” I don’t think I’ve heard anyone employ the “it feels very YOU” construction as a lead-in to a negative criticism before, but I it feels very China of her to misuse such a thing. I’m more amused by the notion that it’s somehow terrible that Dusty employed “an everyday object” in his work more than once. Like everyone in the room was supposed to titter and agree, yes, OBJECTS, how trite! Income from Dusty’s “Twinkie with an anus” composition: $185.

In the strangest judging decision of the night, Kymia’s wall of customer signatures gets plaudits all around. “That’s really cool that what you sold is what you’re showing, and there’s no disconnect,” Bill says, apparently in awe of Kymia’s ability to follow the task’s primary rule. Then there’s Jerry saying, “I was left flat and left down. Until—that all of our signatures are incredibly personal things to us.” Look, Magical Elves, we’re familiar with the phenomenon of the Frankenquote. We know you piece these utterances together, especially since you often do a bad job of it, resulting IN SENTENCES that sound like this. I think it is fair to ask, however, that you at least cobble these various words together into sentences that parse (or come pretty close in China’s case).

This clumsy edit is especially irritating because Jerry seems to be the voice of reason for a second, and I would very much like to know what took place in that “until” moment that made Kymia’s piece seem anything but flat. Anyway, Kymia’s total is $96, which means that her team does not come close to winning.

Sarah K. adapts her T-shirt designs as stencil cut-outs, but unlike Young, she doesn’t have to contend with the indignation of Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, mostly because nobody on the judging panel cares about Sarah’s work. There just isn’t much to it. It’s an outline of boobs, a feathery pink phallus, and a couple of paper hats. Her take is $95.

Lola’s piece is well-received, and it is the best of a lackluster crop. Her use of the text-treatment device for the past couple weeks had become cutesy, but this week she uses it to lend the nude self-portrait an emotional rawness. As Jerry puts it, the secrets “don’t come off as cynical, shammy. They actually came off as real.” Her humiliating confessions, spelled out on top of her naked torso, play off her nudity. The combination raises the question of which personal exposure requires more courage, the physical or the verbal. “The nudity is what you attracted the public with. And then when they sat down with you, you gave them something even better,” Jeanne says. Then Bill giggles and snorts because naked girl wowza!

Despite her sex appeal, though, Lola’s take is only $217, which is not enough to beat Young and Sara’s total. So for his achievement of having the fourth-highest sales, misunderstanding the spirit of the challenge, and producing one of the three worst artworks of the day—a bad job by every possible measure—Young receives $15,000. What the hell is the point of the teams here, anyway? There’s practically no collaboration in the challenge, so an underachieving artist rides somebody else’s coattails to riches. It’s bad enough we have to do this cynical cash-reward thing, and now they’re being handed out on the basis of no merit whatsoever. The game-show lover in me has spirals in his eyes. This would never have happened on High Rollers.

China’s voice quavers during the final dismissal, but the dam does not break. Enough crying for one night, apparently. “Your take on gender roles was barely worthy of a T-shirt,” Bill tells Sarah. And so for failing the live up to the legacy of such masterpieces as “Federal Breast Inspector” and “Mustache Rides 5¢,” she is sent home.

Stray Observations:

  • I wonder how many signatures Kymia would have sold if she weren’t surrounded by a camera crew that gave her the aura of fame. Of course, everyone had that advantage, but I don’t see how she comes even close to $96 worth of signature sales without it. (And on the flip side, Lola might have made even more money if her customers didn’t have to be on camera while they decided whether to buy a picture of a naked lady.)
  • And now, your Strange Simon de Pury YouTube Video Of The Week. It’s a launch party for an exhibit of Simon’s photography, as seen through the eyes of a videographer with a foot fetish.

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