It’s that time of the year again, when Work of Art tries it’s darndest to be literally the worst thing that has happened to art since…since, well it sets a new low bar, so probably since never. In case you didn’t see season 1, Work of Art is the search for the “next great artist,” in the same way that America’s Next Top Model crowns a supermodel and Cake Wars crowns a, I dunno, midget cupcake? I think that show is on TLC, so I might be getting things mixed up.
But anyway, this Sarah Jessica Parker-produced disaster did feature among others, actual art critic Jerry Saltz, actual practicing artist Andres Serrano, and actual gallerist Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. It also featured a challenge where the contestants had to be inspired by a Lexus.
The final artists were on some base level not utterly terrible, and I think most of them came on the show for legitimate reasons. And by that I mean they are artists, and therefore, they needed money. Let’s get one other thing out of the way before we begin: Obviously, the usual tropes of a reality competition television show can’t possibly be anything but contrived, wacky, and unhelpful to an actual artist’s development. The completely bizarre thing about Work of Art, however, is that it comes ever so close to the experience of studying art-making in college. It is as close a microcosm of art school as television could probably ever get without being very boring to watch. This show is not boring.
But that’s enough background; let’s get onto this season!
Oh, and full disclosure: I went to art school and have worked in the art world for five years.
China Chow, our host: This mouth attached to a dress, filled with cotton swabs and Mr. Chow’s Noodles, is clearly here just for prettiness. Which is to say, she’s pretty? Someone once told me that during the production of season 1, she had absolutely nothing relevant or interesting to say, so they had to feed her lines through her ear piece. That’s a true story. Side Note: What is that awful lavender dress China’s wearing at the beginning? It looks like she tied a sheet in knots and threw it over her shoulder. OK, now I actually love it. Such is fashion.
Simone de Pury, artist’s mentor: Simone is a legit big deal in the art world, well, as much as anyone else can be. I wouldn’t necessarily say his auction house is a joke per se, but let’s just put it out there that they have done some pretty ridiculous things over the years. Every time their catalog arrives, we all collectively shrug and say, “Oh, Phillips, when will you learn?” Sotheby’s and Christie’s are constantly competing for the top, while Phillips is a distant, sadly Eurotrash third. However, I will say that as a TV personality, Simone comes of as a rather likeable and fairly easygoing guy. He’s not an artist himself, of course, but he has the ability to speak about art and process while sounding neither too sure of himself nor too uneducated. You sort of agree with him for the most part. He’s the voice of reason. Still, and it’s hard to explain this in a quick blog post, but that an auction house is involved in the nurturing of young artists at all is disturbing on many levels. (Cheat Sheet: Auction houses deal in the secondary market, or in other words, pieces that have already been sold once by a gallery, in the primary market. Thus, their supreme goal is making money, and to that end they [and again, simplifying here] employ questionable tactics to elevate the careers of artists they think have current or future monetary potential.) Also, he did this.
Jerry Saltz & Bill Powers, permanent judges: I don’t really know much about Bill Powers, other than apparently he wants to be on TV? I can’t say I’ve ever been to his gallery, known of anyone ever buying anything from it, or even am aware that it is located in NYC. Jerry Saltz, on the other hand, is one of the most influential (or at least quantitatively widespread in his writing) art critics currently practicing. He’s the senior art critic for New York Magazine and is famously married to Roberta Smith, the senior art critic at the New York Times. Why he is on this show, well I’ll let him explain.
And finally, the contestants! Normally, I would point out how absurd reality television contestants tend to name themselves, both in spelling and pronunciation. But this show. THIS SHOW. Holy mother of jebus are these some sweetly ridiculous names! I am not shitting you, folks, these are their names. These are not, and I repeat, THESE ARE NOT porn stars. These are artists. Here’s what we learn about the artestants:
Michelle: Her paper portraits are certainly cool, at least in the process, and they’re objectively well made. But there is just something hokey about them, like in a Red Grooms sort of way. Later we learn she was the victim of a hit-and-run and almost would have been in a wheelchair while filming the show. So she’s definitely not getting cut, yet. Too soon?
Young: His name is an adjective, and he is a homosexual. When his parents were dying he felt it would be a great memory to photograph them one last time while naked and dripping wet in their hospital room. To which I say, those are some forgiving parents! His past art variously rips off Ledray and Warhol, although there is also obviously some fun performance thrown in there. Lovely.
Kymia: From Durham, NC. Questionable name spelling, but possibly foreign so gets a pass. Past art appears to be lots of depressed portraits and self-portraits. Nothing new or interesting here except that she describes herself as “bubbly.”
Tewz: Graffiti artist. Proud of having been arrested in Chicago. OK. I mean that’s fine I guess. His baseball cards self-portrait does sort of speak to me, in an innocent little boy sort of way, but I fear we’ll instead see lots of garish, poorly-painted pieces coming from him.
Fiat: Upon closer examination, it appears I made up this artist. But I swear he was mentioned. I would like to think that this is a credible name for someone on the show, if I’m wrong. At least give me that. Maybe poor Fiat had to clean up after everyone and just isn’t credited. Or maybe poor Fiat was murdered, chopped up, and incorporated into someone else’s piece. Oh wait! No, it’s just the corporate sponsor! Duh.
Sarah: Sarah’s self-portrait works only in theory, but any sane person would who put those faces on the wall would have realized it just wasn’t the best way to execute this idea. What about a zoetrope? Or a layered print? Lenticular lens maybe? Her past art seems to be accumulations of colorful lines in public spaces.
Ugo: The pretty one. From France. Describes his work as “abstract line drawing,” which is not even a great way to describe the ripping off of Keith Haring that it plainly is. (I promise that was my immediate reaction. It was later repeated numerous times by other people within the show.)
Kathryn: We don’t see much in the way of her past art, but we do learn that the image that appears to contain her holding freshly slaughtered offal actually contains manipulated dough, gels, and food coloring. This could be interesting. Here’s hoping we see her bathing in fake blood by episode 3.
The Sucklord: Has alter egos. Obsession with sci-fi toys. Lots of graffiti influence. If it weren’t for the vomit-inducing reflexive comparison to Warhol, I might have been interested. Another thing I’d be interested in is the producers of this show getting him some lip balm. Still, let’s hope he sticks around long enough for “sucklord” to enter into the vernacular. Plus, Sucklord has a rat-tail, and he doesn’t care what you think about it.
Lola: Somehow Lola doesn’t have the craziest name or even the 5th craziest name. We’re treated to no pictures of her past art and see only her self-portrait, which consists of her carrying a chair made out of rocks. I would rather have seen the rock chair. Lola’s appearance is that of nearly every art school girl, which is to say frumpy and mousey. Her mom is apparently an actual gypsy, though, so maybe she can draw on that. Put a bird on it!
Dusty: The cliché dude from a small town who’s “never been to the Brooklyn Art Museum.” Oh wow, color me so impressed with The Brooklyn Art Museum. Past art looks to be lots of figurative stuff made with repetitive found objects like crayons and army men. Could have been interesting if it hadn’t already been done lots before. So naturally he’s an art teacher! Curiously, the other contestants see his crayon self-portrait and exclaim, “oh you’re going to be hard to beat!” Plus, Dusty has a mullet, and he doesn’t care what you think about it.
Sara: We barely see anything from Sara’s past, and she is lucky I bothered differentiating her from that other Sara(h). Her included self-portrait is fine I suppose. Also hopelessly derivative and, gasp!, very small. Make em big and/or make em red, that’s what I always heard. Oh right, she used to be bulimic, so…it’s appropriate?
Jazz-Minh: I wonder if when people tell them her name, they ever realize how douchely she spells it. With a hyphen. And an “h!” She’s a hippie and “committed to being an artist,” which for some reason she thinks means she can’t fit into the popular culture. I don’t really understand what that is supposed to mean, but off-hand I don’t hate her paintings. I also don’t hate Eric Fischl’s paintings. Hmm, that’s funny.
Bayete: The token video artist. Strangely his self-portrait doesn’t seem to be in motion. They couldn’t afford a monitor? Isn’t this a television show? Bayete did not shave his shoulders for TV, I know that for sure. His name does not rhyme with Lafayette, by the way. Figure that one out.
Leon: Born deaf in Malaysia. Accompanied by an interpreter. Has done installations in the NY subway, which seem interesting enough. Given that he got a scholarship to come here, I imagine he’ll be one of the few making well-executed thought-out pieces. We’ll see.
So how did the final pieces turn out? I suppose if I had to pick, I liked Kathryn’s transformed-canvas-orifice-photo thing the most. She followed the challenge’s instructions, yet she made something that could totally be in her oeuvre. But more importantly, it was fully realized. It was something you could see being an actual work of art, maybe hanging with 9 others in a gallery. Sadly, I’m not a judge, so let’s talk about how they saw it:
Sara: I do like the quality of the drawing and the macabre imagery, but something about it feels unrealized. Perhaps because she had only hours to complete it. Probably the best of the three, but not the best of the whole group.
Lola: I originally thought she was in the bottom. You got me this time, editing! Again, there must be something interesting in person. On television it feels disparate and small. The textures are nice, I suppose?
Michelle: This piece is utterly forgettable onscreen. Maybe it’s more powerful in person? Fuck that! It’s not my job to forgive flaws on a television show. Ugh, sob stories. THE WINNER!
Bayete: It doesn’t feel so obviously racially charged to me, as the judges indicated. What’s actually bad is that it’s executed poorly. This one more than many of the others actually looks like student art. However, I disagree that it lacks complexity. Not the worst.
The Sucklord: There’s no way around this: this is a schlocky, crappy piece of crud. But we need more Sucklord on television, so he’s safe. Apparently, photographer Mary Ellen Carroll was the voice keeping him from getting axed. Side Note: I don’t know who Mary is. Never heard of her.
Ugo: Arguably the least crazily named of these three somehow, Ugo sadly suffers from being just too too pretty for his own good. For some reason the judges hate the red on red, to which I say, “but it’s red!” China Chow is obviously told by her earpiece that this is repetitive of Keith Haring. THE LOSER!