Work of Art
I think Bravo’s cable television show Work of Art, now in its second season, may have stumbled on a tear in the fabric of space-time. Or maybe we judges just have crappy taste. In the past two weeks, I’ve become hyper-aware that the art you’re seeing me see in Bravo’s gallery looks totally different in life from the way it looks on TV. Things that impress in person fall flat on TV; things that fall flat in life work on TV. All last week, reality bore this out. I got angry comments from those who said Ugo’s work was fine and that Sucklord or Bayeté should have been axed. One articulate blogger also chastised us for missing the line “Ugo, you go.”
Spatial ruptures don’t disrupt the cool of our redoubtable artist-mentor, Simon de Pury, however. At the opening of this week’s show, his aristocratic Swiss accent happily stirs the artists from sleep as he bursts into their rooms, cheerfully calling out, “Wake-ee wake-ee, artists!” (I imagine his child with a permanently startled look.) As the contestants commiserate about the harshness of last week’s crits, my inner sadist grins. Tewz, who likes to remind us that he was arrested once for writing graffiti and put in Cook County Jail, sighs that loser Ugo “was a nice guy.” Obviously irked that Ugo was a rival for female attention, Sucklord snaps, “Yeah, well, nice guys finish last.” Soon the artists meet Simon and host China Chow in a park. I relish Young’s veiled-sultana look and Leon’s samurai topknot. Suddenly five guys run around the artists, doing backflips, jumping off walls, leaping from curbs. It’s parkour, the activity (a quick BlackBerry Google tells me) in which people run through urban spaces doing death-defying acrobatic moves. Parkour is the basis for this week’s challenge: Make a work of art about motion. Readers, viewers, let me confess something right now. I’ve made my peace with Bravo’s ideas for challenges. Anything that gets the artists working is fine with me. By now, I’ve given up waiting for the producers to respond to all my e-mails telling them to have the artists design a religion or draw the afterlife or make a video-portrait of each other.
The artists are then split into groups. I love this, because I know I could never work with anyone. Neither can 99 percent of artists, who spend most of their time alone in their studios going nuts, doubting themselves, deluding themselves with grandeur or masturbating. One group talks about motion in such literal terms that I wonder whether some of these people are even artists. As Bayeté discusses “stop-motion” and Sara frets, a dazzling idea is offered by last week’s winner, Michelle, who sweetly says, “I’d love to do a pooping piece.” Everyone stops. The boys boggle. Sara frets more. Sucklord demands, “What does poop have to do with motion?!” The witty Kymia says “digestion” (kindly failing to add “you big dummy!”). The other group goes off the rails, choosing the geopolitical abstract theme of global migration. This absurdity drives Jazz-Minh to go do backflips with the hunky parkour guys. Kathryn then says she’d like to do something about. . . “digestion.” Boy, did she end up in the wrong group.
After the studio meetings, which are tense, Simon tells both groups to start over. (Too bad for the poop group. But Simon says that excretion is “too slow-motion.” “Interesting,” I think, “but maybe TMI.”) The migration group then picks a subject more abstract than migration: circles. Tempers flare. Lola reprimands them for not giving Leon “a voice.” I note that Leon was the one who suggested circles. Poop group goes with playgrounds. Lola then announces she’s “double fisting” a bale of paper, and that undoes Sucklord, who purrs to Lola that he’s making “a dirty game piece.” She coos back “Mmmm. Can I play?” The unsexy dork in me is flummoxed, wondering what is it about cockiness that is so attractive to straight women (don’t say “confidence"; that’s different).
Then a smoldering fuse ignites. Stressed, Kathryn announces she’s not going with the program. “I can’t get past doing something about intestines,” she says. As I am thinking, “What a baby!” reality stops me. We (and I) learn that Kathryn has Crohn’s disease, a chronic intestinal disorder that is often painfully debilitating, especially if the person is under stress. Uh-oh. A second later, she’s in the bathroom, in pain, then on the roof with Lola doing a Buddhist mantra chant for inner peace, intoning over-and-over Nam-myoho-renge-kyo!
Cut to the two group shows. The playground one has enough okay work not to lose. Michelle’s sculpture of a figure conjures creepy perverts. Her way of integrating insight, edginess, oddity, and humor into material is highly developed. Pulling the sculpture’s balls gives it an erection. China says “It’s fun to pull on testicles.” I give it a tug myself, thinking, “Yes. Nice to see such visual results.” Yet on TV Michelle’s piece looks like a nothing stick-figure. Ditto this week’s winner, Bayeté. His simple video kept me trying to figure out how it was made, made me think about what stood still, what spun, whether these images were different, syncopated, or going in different directions. On TV it looks like nothing.
In the losing group, except for a few pieces, the show was as dreary as you’d expect. Tewz’s bucket wrapped in a garden hose was simply a run-of-the-mill assisted-readymade. Of course, Tewz assured us it was “successful” and that it said “something about motion,” adding that the colors on the hose changed. Right then, I thought he had to go. Tonight.
Then reality stepped in again. Kathryn made an okay-enough video of gutty bloody clumps thrown on plastic. I liked the staccato visual rhythms and the thwacking sounds, but it looked almost exactly like the photo she made last week. In the crit I shared these thoughts, adding that I was doubting her willingness to push herself and try out other ideas. Just as I was puffing up my inner critic feathers, all hell broke loose. Kathryn lost it, saying “I know; I know. I was grasping. I know!” She began wailing. Then crying. Everyone glared at me. China stopped the crit. The artists shot me withering looks. Remember that, at the time, I had no notion of her medical issues. Agape, I thought “What the hell just happened?” When I watched the show, I saw exactly what had happened. I had become a douchebag on national television.
There are many kinds of artists and numerous definitions of artistic success. We can’t all be, or want to be, a Takashi Murakami. Kathryn is clearly a real artist. Possibly, a very good one. I’m told she’s done photographs for this magazine. She lost last night because as a highly cerebral, narrowly focused art-school-trained artist -- Yale MFA; Photography, it turns out -- she had no business being on a reality TV show. Here she seemed like some kind of out-of-place orchid, an illogical presence more like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa than someone on a bizarrely twisted, pressure-compressed reality TV grad-school game show about art. It was right to send her home. And, Michelle, please this season make a poop piece.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.