Art Girls (and Boys) Gone Wild!

Jerry talks tiger penises and the Suckpenis.

Something more than competition has entered the Work of Art fray -- not greed so much as need. And not just the typical artist-need to be loved by everyone everywhere for the rest of time. (Artists!) Money. Last week saw the introduction of a $20,000 reward for the winner of the challenge. This week, the demon minds at Bravo up the ante to $30,000. At exactly 17 minutes, 58 seconds, into last night’s episode comes Work of Art’s first ever catfight! I get glimpses of why girls’ playgrounds are supposedly so rough. Lola snips at Kymia, who grouses about Lola to Sarah K., who says “Lola is one of those people I stay away from,” as Lola and Michelle side against Kymia who starts crying as Sara J. complains about Michelle and Lola who call Sara J. “a worrywart.” Wow! I would be dead in that sandbox. Lola adds that she’s competitive with Kymia, who muses, “I could use the money because I live with my boyfriend’s parents.” Dusty goes her one better, offering that his wife and he could afford to have another child if he won. Sara J. can’t go to grad school without the dough. Reality TV turns more real. The new show opens with Young massaging Sarah K’s back. Sara J. longingly quips, “Young, will you massage my vagina?” Wow -- Sara J. has game! Or she’s randy! Or just high. In a fleeting shot, I think I spy her on the roof getting stoned.

Anyway: For this week’s challenge, four randomly selected two-person teams have to make an outdoor painting on a 44-foot long brick wall on the side of a building under the Manhattan Bridge. The setting is stirring. The teams pair off.

Dusty and Young develop a tender partnership: Dusty just became a father and Young lost his. Dusty notes that Young’s black short shorts make him look like “a gay construction worker” and claims that all the ladder-climbing in this challenge is resulting in multiple scrotum-sightings. Sarah K. happily confirms this. The Sucklord, having shown a more human side last week, is making me like him more -- and he promptly screws that pooch. The minute he’s paired with Sarah K. he crows, “Cutie with a booty … It’s pretty obvious she wants my body.” Sarah K’s body language says otherwise, her arms crossed in front of her breasts. After Sara J. coyly observes that Sucklord “could impregnate Sarah K. by the end of this challenge,” Lola coos, “I’m not jealous … There’s enough of the Sucklord to go around.” OMG! If Lola is talking about the Suckpenis, I’m off the show. Even though this vernacular-art challenge plays to Sucklord’s one strength, he is distracted both by Sarah’s breasts and by his fear of losing. Worrying about what will be allowed by the judges, exhibiting total lack of confidence, he puts Sarah K. in charge. Bad idea. Her wall grid is only outdone in lameness by Sucklord’s idea of attaching little wooden L-shaped things to it. Too scared to really take responsibility, he sends Sarah to Brooklyn alone, ostensibly so he can pack up their gear and construct more meaningless L-shapes.

Sara J. and Kymia create a fine painting of an alien creature pulling a tree. Though it conveys no message or meaning, it has crazy graphic power. The artists insist it’s about migration or exile or one of those p.c. war-horsies that makes the art world automatically like things. My fave painting this week, though, is by Lola and Michelle. Having a ball together, letting their freak flags fly and randy imaginations run wild, they fashion “hyper-active tigers and sexual predators with striped penises.” Michelle says, “Penises are so much fun.” I love their piece for basically being a demented dominatrix comix strip blown up to 40 feet long. I’d have voted it the winner, but it has one flaw: Though it’s a big public artwork, it looks like nothing till you get within five inches of it.

Instead, Dusty and Young won, for totally engaging the public. It was amazing to watch viewers and strangers stop, look, and talk about the piece, hang out, write personal memories of lost parents and newborn children. It was way more than a feel-good public service announcement. This painting produced its own emotional and psychic gravity field. It won, and should have won. Also, Dusty says if they win he’ll wedge his “junk” into Young’s short-shorts.Which is way more than can be wedged into anything made by this week’s losers, Sarah and Sucklord. After learning last week that he’s more than a cartoon character, I’m sorry to see the Sucklord go. I see in him a lot of my own guy-who-tries-too-hard qualities. Watching on TV, I see he could carry the whole show himself. But alas, the artistic force was not with him. His quest for the ring had to end. May the action-figure force be with him. As I said before, pretentiously channeling the mighty spirit of art, “Sucklord, you shall not pass.” Back to the shire, my little proto-Frodo-type.

The Drama's Done

Jerry gives his thoughts on the final three exhibits.

“Then all collapsed,” goes the last passage of Moby-Dick, “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Work of Art ended last night, although without sublime terror. Its end brought three good shows by three good artists, any one of whom could have won, all three of whom could have real careers (ditto the recent losers Lola and Michelle; Sucklord, get thee to Mordor). The three finalists, plus with my overall feelings about the program this season, tell me that a sea change took place on our show this season, in public and private. Last year, waves of hatred predicted the collapse of the art world and the destruction of art by television; this year unfurled in its own spreading shroud. A bit like art itself: sometimes capturing attention, mostly gliding slowly by.

This year’s Work of Art was less sideshow, more grad school. I suspect that it made for less entertaining TV, though the artists were better and, unlike last year’s, had a sense of how it would go. Each found ways of making personal work in the midst of one of the most impersonal situations any will ever face. As for me: I tried to be clearer in my criticism, weighed fifteen pounds more than last season, marveled as Bill Powers blossomed into an excellent judge, crushed on China Chow, gasped at Simon de Pury’s charisma. I stood in front of a dozen cute stylists. I saw my bald head powdered with makeup. I wore white Spanx that broke my dark heart. It’s a hard … it’s a hard … Wait. Sorry.

About the finalists: Just as last year’s winner, Abdi, should have been given a grant to a good grad school (with the win going instead to the true artist, Peregrine Honig), the excellent artists Lola and Michelle didn’t make it. Sara, who did make the final three, surprised me. After starting off making nice watercolors, she lapsed into cliché and confusion. Although her personality feels oddly absent (both in the flesh and in her work), she got in touch with her inner performance artist, the sculptor within, and excelled with materials. I’m told that Sara is in grad school now, and it should give her a chance to develop her talents. She didn’t win on this night, when much of her show dealt with secret lives and mutant creatures. Once she escapes generic symbolism (like the hypodermic needles she stuck in an old mattress) and ersatz surrealism (origami birds flying from a cage), her work, I imagine, will stand up in the real art world. Congratulations, Sara.

Young’s work rattles with repressed emotion and cerebral acuity. Sharp as a tack about art, the most articulate contestant ever on this show, he became adept at merging the social, the personal, and the material. His show dealt with life, loss, longing, the death of his father, and the cancer of his mother — a lot to take on at once. Thus, it lost emotional momentum. I fancy that Young’s losing a TV game show about art might make his eventual art career easier (though the $100,000 might’ve helped, too). He should move to New York, find a dive in Bushwick, have his New York nervous breakdown, and join a promising next wave of talented people.

Kymia took the prize based on her drawing skills. The surfaces of her drawings didn’t come across on TV, but they were covered in pebble-like flecks, pooled paint, sedimentary minerals, and other original marking techniques. Replete with circumspect touch and fine line and nicely scaled, they had physical presence and psychic gravitas. I was most taken with her rendition of a ship, a sort of psychic raft from the underworld drifting on Melville’s rolling ocean. The shadow of two legs on the sails was hokey, but I wasn’t bothered by this lapse into bathos. Her outing showed an artist following her vision to wherever it led her.

Which is what this show was for me. It already feels far away. My wife has still never watched a minute of Work of Art, though she loves that I did it. So do I. I’m not sure why this is, and would love artists to tell me if there’s an equivalent in their process, but for me Work of Art was all about the before and the after. The show itself was never the thing. It was about getting out of my office; learning how TV is made; being around artists trying as hard as they could; being a part of a mass of people, cameras, lights, and sound equipment functioning as an organism; confronting my fear of celebrities when the show’s executive producer, Sarah Jessica Parker, was a guest judge; being ogled by stylist girls while standing in my underpants. I loved making the show, trying to bring art to a wide audience, writing about it, and the tens of thousands of conversations it generated via my recaps, Facebook posts, tweets, and random street-corner conversations. I dug the shock of someone saying to me in my building’s elevator, “Hey! You’re that mean art-critic judge on TV.” All this experience enriched me, my life, my work, and my stomach.

But the televised show itself? I missed watching four episodes this year — twice I forgot it was on, and twice I had the wrong time. That’s how curious all this has been for me. Right now I feel at peace with my TV god; I’ve gotten everything I wanted. Now it is done. As I am a confessed inner hysteric, allow me a final act of exaggeration, as I end this strange, strange voyage into art criticism on television with the epilogue of Moby-Dick: “The drama's done ... one did survive the wreck ... I was he whom the Fates ordained ... I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks ... glided by ... I was picked up at last ... another orphan ... I alone am escaped to tell thee.”