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.


You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet

Portrait of an Artist

Jerry thinks this week's decision may have been the hardest yet.

For anyone who’s never been a judge on an American reality-TV game show about art — which is about everyone who ever lived in the history of the world except maybe a dozen dodos like me — the penultimate episode presents the hardest decision of the season. By far. You’ve pretty much weeded through contestants who, while good, probably never had a shot. And this is a double elimination. Plus, it becomes harder if, like me, you don’t separate yourself well from situations and get overinvested, which leads to an inability to appreciate the irony, wrongness, absurdity of your impressions; in short, if you’re an inner drama queen and hysteric. This week that part of my psyche got caught in the built-in schism between art on a reality-TV show and art in reality, and I fell into my own burning ring of fire. Which is fine. What isn’t fine is that this impinged on an undeserving artist in my opinion.

More on my weaknesses later. I really like this week’s challenge, a lot. On a rainy day, the artists arrive by train in Cold Spring, New York, about 60 miles north of the city. China tells them they have two hours to find someone in town and “make a portrait of them.” I love watching the artists trying to meet people, size them up, ask to do their portraits. I watch doors slammed on artist’s faces, irked explanations, brush-offs. Eventually, however, they all hit pay dirt. Sara’s I-love-a-man-in-uniform fetish kicks in (straight women, please explain). She walks in front of the fire station and starts talking to the firemen (I notice my wife does this, too). Soon she’s arranged to do a portrait of Jackie, a 58-year veteran of the fire department. Over the weeks, I’ve come to respect Sara’s work. It helps that she does the best Simon impression of any artist so far. Her portrait starts as an enlarged picture of Jackie. Then she makes it better by connecting painting and sculpture, hammering the portrait in metal with little holes. It’s cool. Then she makes it hokey and ugly by adding 58 aluminum rectangles that tumble out of one side of the image. In my mind, Sara has just become the first of my two losers.

As for loser No. 2: Dusty, being Dusty, finds a cute-as-a-button little girl with her mom on Main Street and starts connecting with her like crazy. At home, I get misty and think, I want to have his baby. Weird. Daughter connects to Dusty, too, and wants him to do her portrait. He deems he’ll do her in M&Ms. Fun, colorful, and gimmicky, but this cross between Chuck Close and Vik Muniz looks almost exactly like the clown portrait that almost got him axed the first week. Dusty almost saves himself when he starts to make the portrait out of origami fortune tellers. Then, he defaults to his original idea and becomes my second loser. On the set I think, Thank God, there’ll be none of the next-to-last-episode hysterics I had last year as I agonized about what to do with Nicole.

As for the possible winners: Young approaches a local artist in his shop/studio and offers to pay him $20 if he’ll paint his portrait (at least he didn’t bet him $10,000). Young, meanwhile, snaps pictures for his portrait of the portrait painter painting him. The whole thing is so hall-of-mirrors intriguing it’s a sure thing that Young will make the finals. And deserves to. Next, I feel even better about the world Lola falls into, in her abstract double portrait of two owners of a local coin shop. She goes the challenge one better, using money, text, written notes to the owners, and other concoctions to create a conceptual portrait. I feel the same optimism in front of Kymia’s gnarly painting of the owners of an antique shop, an older couple who look like Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. Her weird realism is Dorian Gray meets Paula Rego. Kymia, Lola, and Young will make a great finale. In my mind, I’ll pretend Michelle is making a poop piece and that Sucklord is reciting Star Wars from the closet.

Then into hell, as the beams of TV reality and actual reality cross. As an art critic, I have a regular M.O. in which I  see and write about shows without ever talking to or really getting to know the artist. I simply want to base my impressions more or less on the exact same things most viewers will see. The way Work of Art is made requires me to do my looking in far less time, with a dozen cameras following me, occasionally wearing the man-girdle called Spanx, but this process still echoes my regular way of looking at art — and the speed deciding is a fun challenge. But this week Bravo throws a huge spanner into my critical works: The subjects are invited to the gallery show.

I find myself in the middle of a group of big firemen. Maybe my man-in-uniform thing kicks in. I’m not sure how this happens, but they start asking me lots of questions, demanding, “Do you know how much Jackie was paid for all of his work over the last 58 years?” Before I can answer they say, “Nothing, that’s what he was paid! He gave his whole life to this job. For no money. Did you know that?!” I start freaking out. I think, Oh my. What an amazing man! An American hero. On top of that, I'm intimidated, even scared of them. And I'm all alone with them, off-camera, having finally freed myself for ten minutes to walk around and congratulate myself for getting through this ninth week without any problems.  Somehow, some way, in this demented state, surrounded by these big New York guys who are looking around at the other art like it's sissy stuff, I somehow decide that Sara’s fireman portrait is patriotic and important and very good art. Immediately after this, in the judges’ deliberations, Lola’s portrait is being seriously questioned for “not being a real portrait,” being “too obscure,” “evasive.” Someone demands, “Where are the owners?” Someone else says Lola hasn’t actually done the assignment. Add to all this the unnerving experience of constantly being stopped by strangers on the street and the numerous comments on these recaps from people who basically say, “Are you nuts? I don’t understand what you see in Lola’s work. She’s got to go!” And in all of this, in exhaustion, my critical switch gets flipped.           

It all seems so obvious to me now. Even though I'd known that Lola had made a complex work of art that I really liked and that embodied a kind of canonic defiance of the form and format of portraiture; that she altered the visual and conceptual rhetoric and terms of portrait-making; occupied a gap between abstraction and obsession, cerebral and visual information; created an optical absence; given introspective human voice to invisibility: Even though these things should have guaranteed her a shot in the finals, in that moment I fall to my own exhaustion, weaknesses, and unsure confusion, and Lola is sent home. The three artists in the finals are all good. The one who didn’t make it is, too.

You May Also Like...

Recommended by Zergnet