Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Street Dealers”
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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Street Dealers”

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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist

“Street Dealers”

Season 2, Episode 6

When I agreed to step into John’s large shoes to take over tonight’s episode of Work Of Art, I was prepared to open with an apology.

I love Work Of Art dearly, and love John’s recaps, but my approach to writing about the show is usually an academic breakdown of how particular elements of the series and its artists help deconstruct traditional notions of reality television narratives. And while I’d like to think that at least some of you might be interested in those things (you can check them out here, if you so desire, and if you’ll forgive the self-promotion), I know that you’re here for something much closer to a critically-charged and humorous recap of the artists’ journey into the world of street art, and I didn’t consider myself the right person to take on that task. Donna Bowman once suggested that she felt taking over for John on Project Runway resulted in what amounted to a “John Teti Impression,” which I felt would fail miserably at (although I do a great Todd VanDerWerff, and a passable Rowan Kaiser).

However, I then watched the opening sequence of “Street Dealers,” in which China Chow in all her benevolence gives the artists cans of spray paint and informs them to graffiti her body. And while I’ll admit there was the academic part of me who wanted to discuss the implications of this use of her body as a space for artwork, I spent much of the rest of the sequence wondering what John would have said about it. Like, for example, how did no one before the Sucklord actually draw something with their graffiti? His nipples were juvenile, but at least he acted like an artist instead of a toddler who… damnit, see, John would know where to go with that!

My other dominant thought at the beginning of “Street Dealers,” other than my usual joy at witnessing Simon’s lust for life (this time while dressed as the classiest urban street artist in history), was that Tewz must be sitting at home so pissed right now. It must suck to be an artist who couldn’t find their footing outside of their own style having to watch people trip over themselves trying to replicate that style… of course, it would suck even more to get to “your” week and still flame out, which could have easily been Tewz’s fate. Either way, Tewz is two weeks gone when the show heads to Brooklyn to do some street art in teams of two on 44-foot sections of a brick wall, which is at least intended to push some of these artists outside of their comfort zone.

To be fair, though, the Sucklord is entirely right. As he explains after China and Simon ramble on about the evolution of street art from “street” to “art,“ street art is an incredibly broad term, best understood as art in a public space. On this level, no one should be at an explicit disadvantage, given that any number of skills should be applicable to this new medium. It might require some expansion (like, for example, Kymia and Sara’s concern that their “small” drawing style might have to change on such a large canvas), but it isn’t asking painters to sculpt, or photographers to perform: Instead, it’s asking them to apply their skills within a different space, what seems as though it might be a fun challenge.

It certainly begins that way, given how much everyone enjoys choosing cans of spray paint and using China as their canvas while picking teams. Some of this might just be Simon’s infectious joy at being able to join in, as he draws a happy face on China and earned the moniker of “The Sucklord in an Ascot” from Michelle. However, some of it might be the $30,000 cash prize that China throws their way.

Actually, let’s sidebar on that: Is anyone else growing tired of reality shows throwing in cash prizes? Is winning the competition not enough anymore? In the case of Work Of Art, winning a challenge gets you incredible capital with the judges, and builds confidence that will be extremely helpful in keeping you motivated creatively. Do we need to throw $30,000 in there the week after the winner received $20,000? I don’t know why the Magical Elves are so obsessed with this (they use it on Top Chef all the time too), but it bugs me.

However, it’s apparently great for the contestants, who are always excited about finding ways to spend money. As they set to brainstorming, though, we start to learn more about their anxieties, which means it’s time for the show to start to play up the narratives that could potentially tear these pairings apart.

I’ll admit that my academic side is going to come out a bit here given that I led four discussions of reality television narratives this week, and the way these pairings are drawn is a key example of how reality shows shorthand narratives into episodic structures. Michelle and Lola are established as the BFFs (who will eventually morph into the mean girls), Sara and Kymia are positioned as the kindred spirits (both sharing a certain apprehension about the project), while the Sucklord and Sarah are positioned somewhat awkwardly as the love birds (to the point that the producers felt the need to ask Lola if she’s jealous when the Sucklord flirts with other women).

However, Young and Dusty are the odd couple, always the favorite reality pairing in circumstances like this one. It helps, of course, that the episode begins right after Dusty and Young have faced off for $20,000, with the former still bitter that the latter walked away with the prize (which I can understand, since Young’s work is enormously dull). And yet that wasn’t enough for the Magical Elves, who decided to let Dusty explain why they’re so different:

“Me and Young come from different places,” he begins. Okay, that makes total sense. The show has established Dusty, not un-problematically, as the country bumpkin, so I see where he’s coming from. It does seem unlikely they were born or raised in the same location.

“We have totally different life experiences,” he continues. Again, this is factually true: Unless they are part of a Magical Elves conspiracy in which reality contestants are raised in a secret, underground compound and then imprinted with particular characteristics and placed into a situation, they definitely had different life experiences. I’m with you so far, Dusty.

“I’m married with a child, he’s got a boyfriend — you know, I mean, we’re totally different people.” And now Dusty has lost me. Look, I don’t think Dusty is a terrible person, and it’s very possible this is part of a larger conversation he had with producers during a testimonial in which he emphasized his tolerance of homosexuality. However, given that we don’t see this material, this reads as Dusty believing that their respective relationships are totally different. I get that Young doesn’t have a child, and that he isn’t married, but that wasn’t what Dusty was implying here, or at least it’s not what the Magical Elves were implying with their editing. This is right out of the reality-television playbook, with the rural bumpkin expressing how they couldn’t possibly have something in common with the urban homosexual. In fact, the opening episode of The Real World: San Diego saw their taller, handsomer 20something Dusty equivalent say pretty much the same thing when meeting his lesbian housemate. Even if these people really think this way, which is entirely possible, that it’s always filtered in this tired, reductive fashion is a reality television narrative trope that I want to see DIE IN A FIRE at a point in the near future, and which does some serious damage in this episode in terms of Dusty’s view of homosexuality (which comes into play again with the short shorts).

Okay, that rant went on longer than I expected. Anyway, we also learn during this segment that Lola glitter-bombed subway cars as a kid, which totally gets me imagining scenarios in which Al Pacino sits down to reprimand his quasi-stepdaughter about something he cannot fathom, and there’s a suggestion that the Sucklord will impregnate Sarah by the end of the challenge (which would be the first successful creation process for the Sucklord thus far). They then all each go their separate ways, and the teams each start creating their works of art.

This is where the show is really at its best, and where the differences between the artists become clearer. While the others seem critical of Lola and Michelle for their “Tiger Penises” angle, I don’t understand why Young thinks that the fact that they are “in their own fantasy world” is such a problem. Young seems obsessed with art that has deep political meaning, but just because you’re not trying to solve global problems doesn’t mean that you are not taking art seriously. You can create serious art with tiger penises, and it’s quite possible (if not quite probable) that it could be just as political as Young’s gaudy grasps at topicality that grow more banal with each passing week (even if they will never quite be as banal as that “subtle” Earthquake flag that referenced the Earthquake in the bloody title back in the première).

My general confusion at Young’s success is bleeding through here, and it doesn’t help that he and Dusty continue to get a “Ruh-roh” edit from the producers. While the Sucklord and Sarah plot their way out of the bottom three, and as Sara and Kymia explore their respective heritages in a piece about roots, Dusty and Young have to this point built two sets of stairs. They have an idea for how they want to take advantage of the outdoor space by prompting a degree of interaction, but they don’t have any art to go with it. And somehow I don’t think Young is going to jump at my suggestion of tiger vaginas (although he should really reconsider, since this television season has proven that, vaginas? Highly topical among sitcom writers. And who knows who their guest judge could be?!).

That would have been fitting with the evening’s theme, though: Just after Michelle asks if they might be potentially using “too many penises” (which Lola reacts to as though it’s the silliest question she’s ever heard, and by showing Michelle the penis she just finished drawing), Sucklord begins the next work day by lifting a giant tube to his crotch and letting it go “limp” next to some conveniently located white paint splatter (which… yeah, I can talk about penises just fine, but I’m going to resist over-explaining what he was going for there). Either way, this is a phallic episode of Work Of Art, and thus a kind of delightful one for those of us who appreciate the show’s willingness to engage in discourses not often seen within other reality programming. Which, yes, in this case means penises.

But the other artists are rallying against the phallic takeover, as Michelle and Lola’s approach becomes an island amidst more serious or abstract subjects once Dusty and Young settle on a graphic conversation about their respective experiences of becoming a father and losing a father. Meanwhile, Kymia struggles to get through to Michelle and Lola regarding the use of the workroom technology, and the transformation into mean girls is complete as they monopolize scanners and get annoyed with Kymia’s attitude (while she cries to Sarah). In truth, I don’t entirely understand the entire conflict, but I guess it’s the narrative we’re running with for reasons that will eventually become painfully clear.

Things get far more interesting, however, when they actually get to the brick walls and start to install their art work. It’s actually really interesting and effective, as the larger canvasses completely change the context of their work. For Sara and Kymia, their initial drawings are blown up to an enormous scale, and become more powerful even before their finished, while Dusty and Young’s conversation takes on a sense of purpose that it lacked in the abstract (especially since it still sounds enormously boring when they act it out with no energy).

By comparison, the other two pieces offer a greater challenge when they’re works in progress. Lola and Michelle have a lot to look at, but it’s not quite organized in a clear fashion, which makes Simon’s critique somewhat tentative (although that could have been the penises, although I’d like to think Simon’s totally down with the penises). By comparison, Sucklord and Sara are struggling to construct their labyrinth (which comes in different layers), which is just a bunch of black and white until their dimensional pieces are added. After some initial concerns regarding rain overnight, the next morning sees every group finishing up without any catastrophe, and with some intimidation as the artists start to analyze the competition.

As the “gallery” show begins, the Kymia vs. Michelle/Lola narrative starts to make perfect sense. Lola’s been talking about her renegade past all episode, and so it’s only fitting that their plan to give gallery visitors stickers would extend into “tagging” the work of the other artists involved in the show. There’s some expected drama around this, including some gallery visitors who actively resist Lola’s attempt to involve them in her dastardly ways. While I found Lola’s child-like giddiness at tagging their serious piece less than attractive, I think it’s well within their right, and is certainly within the spirit of the challenge (which is not as hyper-serious as the right side of the building might argue).

However, there’s also some time to focus on the works themselves. In truth, Young and Dusty’s work has the same problem I have with all of Young’s work: Once I get the point, which takes roughly two seconds, I don’t want to spend any more time with it. I get that it’s meaningful, and there’s a visual style to parts of it that I found quite compelling, but I think I prefer a more abstract approach to meaning in these instances. That doesn’t make me an art critic, and I don’t pretend to be one, but even if I “get” the piece I just don’t find it that impressive (and would agree with Simon that the idea of writing in comments is silly, both because Young already did it and because the things people wrote involved way more exclamation marks than is healthy).

Meanwhile, Sara J. and Kymia’s piece is perhaps best described by China (!), who suggests it is at its most interesting when viewed from afar. It’s striking, as Simon suggested on his first visit, but it doesn’t have anything to offer once it pulls you in. Despite giving the impression of action, it feels remarkably sterile when viewed up close.

This is why, ultimately, Michelle and Lola’s piece is the most effective for me. It’s maybe a bit overdone, exploding with a few too many added details (if not, of course, with too many penises, because that is unfathomable) with the different words thrown in there, but it suggests a voyeuristic glimpse into the world behind the wall, and then invites you to take part in the revelry. The whimsy that Young saw as them not taking the challenge seriously actually feels like one of the better engagements with translating an artist’s perspective into a street-art atmosphere, and the sense of scale and the sense of playfulness are both well situated within the piece from my time with it.

There just isn’t as much to see with Sara and Sucklord’s piece, though, which suffers from being too abstract without any other point of visual interest. I like the three-dimensionality of parts of the labyrinth, and liked the touch of the rat and cheese that sort of push you subtly in the direction of reading and piece and interacting with it visually. However, at the same time, it’s the same three-dimensionality from every angle, or at least the same principles of three-dimensionality, whereas it seemed like the other artists had either a more clearly captured “purpose” behind the work or a more diverse visual signature. That seemed to put the labyrinth at a disadvantage, even if the Sucklord is not wrong to suggest it is his most effective work to date on some level.

When we get to the crit, which is awkwardly being held indoors with photos of the murals that don’t capture their scale, it is unsurprisingly Dusty and Young who are singled out as a judges’ favorite. It’s about what we’d expect: Bill lauds them for obscuring their faces so that this could really be about anybody, while guest judge Lee Quinones applauds their willingness to allow people to interact with the piece, neither of which feel like particularly inventive notions but they’re enough to elevate them into the top half of the draw.

That Sara and Kymia join them there is a disappointment, even if Sara’s Canadian heritage has me rooting for her out of national pride. In fact, it somewhat bothers me that China was in love with the piece and yet had no idea what these people represented. I agree it is visually evocative, and certainly wouldn’t eliminate either of them in this situation, but that it isn’t evocative of anything in particular feels like a missed opportunity to me. It made me wish they had just described it as “We wanted to make something that looked great on a giant brick wall in Brooklyn,” because that’s all that placed them above the other contenders if the meaning of the piece was indiscernible.

As the other two pairs learn they’re in the bottom two, the Magical Elves shuffle their pointy shoes onto China’s shoulder to tell her to force the winning teams to stay even after Dusty and Young are awarded the win (and that dratted $30,000 prize). This doesn’t really have any impact for Sara and Sucklord, who stand apologetically as Jerry Saltz falls asleep at their conventional take on street art while Bill imagines the person who commissioned this work sipping some white wine. And as their backs are against the wall, the Sucklord once again confounds any sort of villain narrative, defending Sarah against non-existent (but likely inevitable) attacks that it was her influence which kept the Sucklord from living up to his subversive potential. It’s a valiant stand, and one that reinforces how much the guy has been totally willing to accept criticism like a rational adult even if he has not quite figured out how to adjust his work to win the judges over. I like the guy a lot, which is why I sort of wish he had placed the blame of Sarah so that a less interesting contestant could leave before the individual positioned—as ridiculous as it might seem—as the voice of reason among the contestants in many instances.

By comparison, Michelle and Lola receive a critique that basically boils down to the piece feeling too lightweight, which certainly suggests that tiger penises have not in this instance been rendered political. Lola is particularly docked for reusing the writing from last week’s successful piece in a more light-hearted context, although you’ll note that Young reusing a technique from his Proposition 8 piece went entirely unmentioned (although it’s possible it came up in the crit but was edited out, and he stayed with the same political space without “cheapening” the technique as Lola did here). I still think the piece is far more interesting and adventurous than the boring moralizing on the other side of the wall, but I don’t disagree that it’s juvenile caricature: I just don’t necessarily see that as a problem, although the judges certainly felt differently, and I’m wondering if spending an extended time with the piece might dull its initial impact and complicate the voyeur narrative that, within the show’s editing, may have been more plausible. Or maybe I’m just blinded by my love for tiger penises.

And then it’s time for the big blowup, as China turns to the other judges to ask what they thought of the piece. First off, I would love to have access to what the contestants thought of the other pieces, provided that China asked this question for each of them. Secondly, is that it? Sara and Kymia voice their disapproval, Lola voices her logic, and we cut to Jerry Saltz nodding thoughtfully? This wasn’t a blowup worth spending so much time constructing throughout the episode, and even in the waiting room afterwards they basically suggest they understand why the other side reacted as they did and they can just move on from there. There’s not even any ugly crying! A terrible disappointment.

Speaking of which, the judges’ deliberation ends where I feared it would: After too many second chances, the Sucklord finally meets his end after the judges built up expectations that he seemed entirely disinterested in exploring. He never tried to push Sara in the direction of a more subversive work of art, and that the judges expected him to seemed to make his weak performance a greater disappointment that any of his fellow competitors. His exit reminds me of Nao’s exit last season, in that all of the villain editing done in early episodes dissipates as he accepts his fate, acknowledges that this can only make him stronger, and says that he gave it his best effort. I appreciated, though, his angry snatch of his action figure self-portrait from the wall, one last bit of “subversion” to end his reign as season two’s most interesting contestant by an enormous margin.

Jerry Saltz, meanwhile, bids him farewell by suggesting that the force wasn’t with him. And do you know what? Screw you, Jerry Saltz. I wouldn’t argue the Sucklord ever managed to make an interesting piece of art, nor would I necessarily argue that he deserved to stay as long as he did (or that he deserved to survive this challenge). However, beyond the fact that this line was entirely lame, it also ignores the fact that Work Of Art isn’t about finding the best artist. The Sucklord, despite every early appearance that he would be so full of himself that he would prove insufferable, has proven to be a generally easy-going person who managed to absorb an enormous amount of criticism without ever becoming so jaded as to lose his sense of humor. Somehow, he evolved to the point where my brain no longer tried to stop taking him seriously every time it thought about his ridiculous moniker, a feat that should not be demeaned by simply associating him with his singular cinematic obsession. The Sucklord is not just a Star Wars fan: he’s a reality competition hero.

And, really, that’s sort of what I’m here to see, and what I worry will be absent now that the Sucklord has left us.

Stray observations:

  • I really don’t think Dusty’s a horrible person, but the idea that “Gay Construction Worker” is the only way to describe Young in his short shorts, and the fact that his friends will give him a hard time for wearing Young’s clothes, just slid right into the bumpkin narrative.
  • I’d say the judges are right about who was driving Lola and Michelle’s piece: the overlong title “The New Neighbors Seem Nice (I Wonder When They’ll Invite Us Over)” is a dead giveaway that it was Lola.
  • I wonder what Banksy would think about street art being created in the context of a reality show. Also, I am going to presume you’ve all seen Exit Through The Gift Shop, but you should all do that. Tremendous documentary.
  • John will be back next week. I promise. However, since I don’t want to disappoint those looking for a bit more Simon at the end of the recap and yet also don’t want to step on John’s next planned installment of Strange Simon de Pury YouTube Video of the Week, here’s my Entertaining Simon de Pury Google Image Search Result of the week. I think he’s actually in front of a painting, but I imagine he’s shooting a music video. Which involves fireworks.

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