Back to School

Simon felt like he was coming back from summer vacation for the filming of Season 2.

It was a wonderful and at the same time also slightly odd feeling to get back to filming for Season 2 of Work of Art. I was very happy to see my colleagues again from Season 1. China Chow was as radiant as ever and is an outstanding host. She oozes charm and is an artist magnet in real life. She is totally implicated in the show and takes the elimination of every artist very much to heart. Jerry Saltz is at the top of his form for this new season. His sharp judgment is both feared and respected by the contestants. Bill Powers conveys his passion for contemporary art and has a killer sound bite for every situation. I do very much miss Jeanne Greenberg this season, but I do look forward seeing her as a guest judge in future episodes. It also is a pleasure to work again with the highly professional teams of Magical Elves and Pretty Matches. As I do have a fairly busy life in between, I feel it is like centuries ago that we were filming Season 1. So I felt a little bit like coming back to school after a very long summer break.

Most of all I was very curious to meet the fourteen contestants. A little while had passed since I had seen them amongst nearly 1,200 artists for a very brief moment at the time of the initial castings in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. First I saw the self-portraits they had prepared for the occasion, and then I saw them appear all at once while I was waiting to welcome them with China at the "world famous" Brooklyn Museum of Art. A good overall energy was instantly palpable.

I was happy to see that the Sucklord had made it into the final fourteen. I suffer acutely from the collecting disease, and one of the many areas I am interested in is toy art. I had come across his work some time back and had acquired some of his pieces. I also have had some of his pieces under my gavel. I am particularly fond of his Darth Vader acting as a DJ at the turntables with a pile of miniature vinyls at his feet. I admire him for getting out of his comfort zone and participating in this competition where he clearly will have to demonstrate some versatility if he wants to succeed. He was in the bottom three of this first challenge, but I actually do like the work he had done for it, even though it is a fairly literal transformation of a very "schlocky" two dimensional work to an equally "schlocky" three dimensional work.

Already at the casting stage I asked Ugo if his work was not too close in style to Keith Haring. With his immense charm and a healthy dose of self-confidence, he brushed aside that concern. When he produced for the challenge a work, admittedly well executed, which looked like a pastiche of Keith Haring, I had to ask him that same question again. I was not surprised to see that it was a concern for the judges as well. Ugo has a great way about him, and I am certain his charm will serve him well in whatever he will do going forward.

I loved the video that Bayete had done for the casting of the two Bayetes debating with each other whether they should participate in the competition. He picked possibly the "schlockiest'" object amongst all the "schlock" the contestants had to choose from. When I visited him during my first studio visit, I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the additional head while also worried he might just add too much and make it too busy. That worry sadly came true when I saw his final work in the exhibition. It demonstrates every artist's dilemma , whether fine or merely mediocre, to know when to stop a work.

Kymia took a very anodyne looking object and transformed it into a fairly spooky but most intriguing looking object. With each challenge I try to ask myself which of all the works I would possibly wish to own if I was offered the chance. I did this little game when my children were small and I was taking them to museums. Having to pick one work really forced them to think which was their favorite and taught them how to look. With this challenge Kymia's "reworked" sculpture would be the one I would choose. It is a little bit like a bad song that was remixed and or reinterpreted into a much better one.

Sarah's watercolor was very consistent with the type of work she had shown during the initial casting. She used the sculpture that she picked as inspiration for a good work in her own very personal signature style. The combination between the gruesome subject matter and the somewhat naïve and child like drawing and coloring makes it quite powerful.

Lola is a fascinating character. While all thirteen candidates nearly fell over each other to grab the work they had chosen, Lola seemed totally lost and unable to choose between two equally poor pieces of bad art. When I visited her during my studio visit I was even more worried for her. Her desk was surrounded by a number of attempts that looked weak at best. When I went to see the exhibition I was very pleasantly surprised how she transformed a pretty awful object into something very poetic, mysterious, and appealing. Her making it into the top three of this challenge demonstrates that in this competition it is the finishing line that counts. You maybe way back in the field early on and still make it to the top if you get your act together in time for the exhibition.

While watching this episode I learned of Michelle's horrendous accident and her brush with death. It makes her work for this challenge all the more meaningful and powerful. She managed to imbue the fairly ordinary looking totem with some beauty and very ably combine it with rest of her work that she did in her impressive signature style paper sculpture technique. She clearly deserved to win this first challenge.

The nine other artists who were not singled out in this episode all produced interesting work, so it is extremely difficult at this stage to say who the front runners are going to be in this exciting and wide open competition.

Very best,


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Simon was blown away by the brilliance of Kymia's drawings.

While the finale was the episode that I enjoyed watching most, it was also by far the one that was most fun shooting.

First of all it was such a pleasure to visit Young, Kymia, and Sara in their respective homes and to get to meet their loved ones. Driving around Chicago on a sunny day in a convertible Fiat 500 with very loud music was not too bad either.

The finale is the only episode where the contestants have plenty of time to prepare their exhibitions and have no thematic constraints of any kind. They can do their work in their own studios, are not being filmed 24/7, and are not sleep deprived.

The lack of all that pressure is not necessarily an advantage. So often in life we achieve so much more with stringent deadlines than when we think we have all the time in the world on our side. 

I wanted the finalists to do their best work ever for the finale. My visits to their homes and studios took place after already about two thirds of the time at their disposal had elapsed. I had high expectations since Young, Kymia, and Sara had all already demonstrated their talent during the competition so far. What I initially saw in each of their studios did not measure up with these expectations. This explains why I was possibly the bluntest with the artists that I had been during the whole competition.

Young was always the one who knew right from the start most precisely what he wanted to do and was very good articulating it. While, like everything he does, what he showed me in Chicago was fully thought through and extremely well executed, what he was planning for the finale was not exactly conveying much emotion. It was in total contrast to the shrine he had erected in his studio as homage to his late father. That piece was extremely moving without being sentimental and was very powerful. Seeing it made me encourage Young to fully explore the vein of that particular work. When I saw his exhibition fully installed, I was highly impressed by what he pulled together. He did an even more moving shrine for his father that was my favorite piece in the sophisticated installation he created for the finale. It was evident that it was speaking to the viewers in the gallery, and it was touching to see how China and KAWS reacted to it. Young is not only a gifted and intelligent artist, but he also demonstrated how elegant and gracious he is by the way he reacted when Kymia was declared the winner. 

Sara had built real momentum towards the end of the competition. For the finale she grew beyond herself and put together a remarkable show that, contrary to was observed during the critique, made to me a very coherent impression. At the time of my visit her intentions were still all over the place, and there was little coherence between the very large caricature works on paper and the sculptures. She replaced the works on paper that I had seen in her studio with new, very good ones. On top of that she did some new beautiful and poetic works such as the open birdcage with a flock of origami birds flying out of it, the more disturbing but equally strong lingerie done in human hair, and the imprints of the body glued to the wall. She could have chosen the safe track of doing a show mostly in her signature style that she had used in her self-portrait and in Episode 1. Instead she explored new ways of working which paid off in a very strong show for the finale. Like Young, she was very elegant in her reactions to Kymia's victory.

Kymia at various moments during the earlier parts of this competition had shown us flashes of her immense talent. I liked the way she transformed the sculpture she had chosen in Episode 1 for the so called kitsch art challenge. The work she did for the Pop challenge got her a second place right behind Young. The coffin she did with hands and feet sticking out for the newspaper challenge was good, but it was the drawing that brought her victory in the children's challenge that enchanted me. It is an outstanding drawing by any standard. Ever since seeing that drawing, I was secretly hoping Kymia would do more works of equal brilliance. I was trembling for her, since as opposed to Lola or Sara her momentum seemed to slow down a bit. There was the “key to the universe” in the car challenge that had malfunctioned and the “exchange of signatures” that while it sufficiently impressed the judges clearly had very little commercial appeal in the street vendors challenge. I did not particularly like the portrait she did of the couple of antique dealers in Cold Spring. Luckily for her I seem to be alone in that case, since that work allowed her to snatch victory in the penultimate challenge. 

When I visited Kymia's studio I was struck by the beauty of one large drawing. I was thrilled, because finally I was seeing again the type of quality that made me admire so much the drawing from the children's challenge. Turning round in the studio I saw two smallish sculptures that not only had none of the quality of the large drawing but were so unimpressive (I used stronger language on camera) that it was hard to imagine that it was the same person who had done them. Seeing Kymia's reaction to my blunt comments, I was worried that instead of motivating her by shaking her up, I had actually totally discouraged her. I advised her to try and do several large scale works in the manner of the works that I admired. She questioned whether she still had enough time to do them before the final exhibition. Not only was I very much relieved when I walked into her exhibition at the gallery; I was blown away by the quality of several of the large drawings she had done and in particular with the one of the boat with the shadow of the legs on its sail. That work to me is the very best work produced by any contestant during Season 2 of Work of Art. Kymia pulls off the feat of walking that very thin line of creating an exceptional work when it so easily could have looked corny and overly sentimental. I do hope that many viewers of the show will make the effort of going to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to see Kymia's exhibition. It is difficult to fully appreciate on television her gorgeous technique. While her drawings look impressive from afar, it is a pleasure to examine their texture and strokes close up. Kymia's technique is unique and reminiscent of her Iranian cultural heritage.

Death was the predominant theme of the three strong shows the finalists put together for the finale. Kymia, Young, and Sara each dealt with it in totally different ways. Each can be proud of what they did and how they ended the competition. 

It was great having KAWS as a guest judge for the finale. I was an admirer of his work early on and am thrilled to see how he goes from success to success. Artists themselves always bring a unique perspective to the judging of the works, and the guest judges form the ideal complement to the outstanding roster of permanent judges China Chow, Jerry Saltz, and Bill Powers.

The most gratifying thing for me personally in participating in Work of Art this season was working with the artists, host, judges, guest judges, executive producers, producers, technicians, cameramen, sound engineers, make-up artists, etc. It was fun, inspiring, and invigorating.


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