What's Poop Got to Do with It?

Jerry hopes that Michelle actually gets to make her poop piece at some point this season.

I think Work of Art 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. I'm still 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.

Enchanted

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.