The Fame

Jerry was pleasantly surprised by Sarah Jessica Parker during the crit.

I’m afraid of fame. Not of being famous -- that would be great, and would most likely pay better than anything I’m doing now. No: I’m afraid of famous people. When I’m around them, my chakras get jammed. On the outside, I affect a happy hologram of normality; inside, I’m going haywire. I act funny, say stupid things, become overly chummy, or often just hide. All the while I’m thinking, I can’t believe I’m with so-and-so. This is the strange power of being famous. John Waters once called it “a curse.”

This week, Sarah Jessica Parker was the guest judge on Work of Art. Knowing this, I freaked out while driving to the studio, frantically texting the directors and producers to “Keep me away from SJP! I will not appear on-camera with her!” (and other things with lots of emoticons). In the studio, they all came into the dressing room and incredulously said, “Are you joking, Jerry?” I went into a long, serious spiel about how if the art world sees me with SJP, my reputation will be stained. They looked at me like I was crackers, as I opined that as an art critic, I had to maintain my “values” and “integrity.” I said all this as the shiny spot on my head was being powdered by a makeup woman and I was wearing only underpants. Every week, this show reveals another misstep in what I used to believe was my own flawless thinking.

On to the taping: I love this week’s challenge. Each artist is asked to respond to a work of art made by a child (on hand in the studio) with one of his or her own. This simple challenge works wonders, lifting all the contestants out of their comfort zones. Iffy artists step up; good ones get better; bad ones bottom out. I later learn that this challenge was SJP’s idea, and that she linked the show up with the extraordinary Studio in the School art program.

The scenes of artists at work in their studios are revealing. Not knowing what to do, Sara J. asks her kid, “Have you ever heard of exquisite corpse?” (I can only imagine what the kid was thinking.) I totally love it when Michelle asks whether she’s allowed to touch them -- meaning the kids, not the art. When her inner ghoul talks to her child about “swans pecking people’s eyes out,” I really perk up. I dig Lola and Young’s discomfort with their children. Young jumps the conceptual-art shark, asking his child, “Would you mind if I abstracted your idea?” Lola stares at her kid like it’s an alien (generally my mode of behavior in these situations). Some artists go gaga. Schoolteacher Dusty is a natural. Kymia somehow gets her reticent kid to spin an elaborate backstory for her drawing, and ends up rocking the house with a wonderful Grimm’s fairy tale foray into fantasy, horror, overeating, and innocence.

God help me, I even find myself sweet on Sucklord, who for one second drops his act and shows his inner sap, saying of his kid, “She’s just like me, a little super-villain.” Maybe this is why Lola says, “Even a Sucklord can be cute.” Speaking of Lola: gigantic fame alert! She tells the camera that, while she was growing up, her mom dated Al Pacino for ten years. No wonder I sometimes think Lola’s chakras are easily stressed, and that may help to explain something that happens to her work this week. In the studio, she’s making a fantastic Henry Darger–style drawing that tells me she has a real way of lacing together drawing, imagination, inner life, and intricate ideas. Yet as soon as Simon says he doesn’t get what she’s doing, she begins again, just like that. Lola! Artists! You gotta know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em. Or whatever it is. Shaken, she makes a crappy pastel flower piece that, lucky for her, doesn’t get her voted off the island.
Sucklord comes as close as he’s ever come to actually making what I’d call art. In an inspired leap, he translates an already good tree drawing into a better sculptural Styrofoam tree. But instead of seeing how excellently mythic this tree-thing is in its raw state, he gives in to his idiotic inner super-villain, paints it over, and places Star Wars characters on it. Sucklord! You shall not pass!

I love Michelle’s super-strange paper sculpture with sinister eyes. It easily could have won. Dusty’s abstract portrait with moving parts was lovely and his best piece thus far. So somehow he squeaks through to the winner’s circle -- which is fine, as Michelle is such a force as an artist I’m now sure she’ll be hard to stop. Sara J. should have gone home this week for selfishly being unable to get over herself, ignoring her kid’s multicolored, large-scaled word grid (the best single work among the kids’) and made a bathos-filled generic grid about her own childhood traumas and her parents’ divorce. (You wouldn’t believe the uncontrollable crying that went on during her crit.) I’m sorry, artists -- all of us have dark, even hair-raising pasts. Many of us have darker presents. Why else would some of us be drawn to being on a reality-TV game show?

Kymia’s fairy tale is the winner, and the loser this week is an artist I’ve been pretty hard on, Tewz. I have to admit I kind of like his concrete sculpture of the word grow. But I suspect this self-defined “street artist” would have been sent home sooner or later. As he said of us when we were unable to see that his work was what he called “beautiful,” “F--- ‘em.” After we filmed, I went to his website for a look, and if he reins in his cartooning tendencies and the ‘tude, he could be fine.
Which is exactly how I felt about myself by show’s end. The extremely famous Sarah Jessica Parker was one of the sweetest, most articulate, perceptive, sensitive, smart guest judges we’ve had on the show. She spoke more clearly about art than most people in the art world do. She not only deactivated the fame curse -- she ably got me over my idiotic prejudices about celebrity. Strange brew, this dancing naked in public.

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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.”

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