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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “A Shock To The System”

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“The art world is fickle,” goes China Chow’s elimination preamble, and the fourth episode of this series was designed to drive that point home. In last week’s book-illustration challenge, the judges implored the artists to create something that would make a good cover; this week, two contestants were derided for doing just that. Art critic Jerry knocked Jaime Lynn’s naïve, cartoony take on The Last Supper as a wanna-be New Yorker cover, and Erik’s Catholic NAMBLA composition was described as a “Mötley Crüe cover.” It’s Week 4, folks. “Cover” = “bad” now. Try to keep up.


In both cases, these were spot-on critiques from the judges, who upped their game this week, with the exception of a major misstep in the elimination of Nao. With a surprise double-elimination twist, Nao and John were booted from the compound by China “Pursed Lips Of Justice” Chow. I think these were the wrong choices, but I’m not going to defend John’s auto-fellatio cartoon. He was flailing this week, and the attempts to spin his image of wang-devouring onanism as a tale of sorrow rang untrue from the start. Mentor Simon was rightly suspicious of John’s claims that a friend’s self-sucking “wrecked his life.” Maybe Simon and I had the same thought: Dude’s totally lifting this from that old Will Ferrell yoga sketch.

The trouble is that the survivors of the Bottom 4, Erik and Jaime Lynn, have so far shown us a grand total of nothing. Erik’s clown-on-a-palette from Week 1 remains the low bar of work on the show, and Jaime Lynn’s vague persecuted-liberal-Christian complex remains far less interesting than she imagines. At the very least you could say that she introduced some nuance this week, as her “I’maChristian!” drumbeating was tempered with concern over hypocrisy in the church. But those sentiments are pretty mainstream—heck, they’re expressed with more force and eloquence in a thousand Andrew Sullivan blog posts each day—so it was practically impossible for Jaime Lynn to rise to this shock-value challenge. Yes, John completely whiffed this week, but so did Erik and Jaime Lynn, and the tiebreaker should go to the one who’s actually demonstrated some chops.


Which brings me to Nao. Sure, her performance/installation of, oh, maybe a feces-covered animal guarding its nest (…?) was pretty messy. It was surprising, though, or at least discomfiting. Among the four artists brought into the firing line, she was the only one who produced work with flavor—with a capacity to elicit any reaction of note. Guest judge Andres Serrano (hey, a special guest I’ve heard of!) recognized this, and while he wasn’t swooning over Nao, he did defend her, much to Jeanne’s consternation. (Was it consternation? Maybe it was rage. Or hunger. Jeanne’s face is hard to read.) Bill writes in his BravoTV.com blogspot that he agreed with Serrano’s feedback to Nao, so with two judges at least partly in her corner, I don’t see how she ended up on the short end of the stick.

The standard reality-TV-fan conspiracy theory would be that Nao wasn’t fitting into the black-hat role that she was initially slated to fill, so she had to go. I don’t think that “the producers” futz with the results on these shows nearly as much as a lot of viewers do—they derive the bulk of their storytelling power from the editing—but I have to admit that my first thought was, “Of course she gets booted. This show never knew what to do with Nao.”


That’s wrong, though. They clearly knew exactly what to do with Nao, as evinced by the fact that this was the first time I cared about who was getting kicked off (and not just because of perceived injustice). She had a tidy little arc—the nasty, pompous blowhard who mellowed into a calm, self-assured presence at the eye of the workroom storm. Out of courtesy, I won’t call her a “den mother” since she’d surely bristle at the cookie-cutter gender role. That’s definitely what Work Of Art was going for, though. It’s not the move you would have expected, which is what made Nao’s story such a savvy bit of narrative.

Oh, right, this episode had a winner, too: Abdi. Can’t say I was crazy about this choice, either. Last week I talked about how the camera can render a startling flatness on objects that are striking in person, and I think that might be an ongoing problem with Abdi’s sculptural work. His bomb-heads, intended as an embodiment of pent-up rage in young, urban black men, were conceptually the most compelling and heartfelt pieces on the floor. From my viewpoint, though, the final product was barely legible, more mangled than powerful. The disconnect between the image on my TV screen and the judges’ reaction to it made me think there had to be a missing piece, and it turns out there was, kind of. Jeanne reveals the details on her own BravoTV Friendster page:

[T]hough it was not included in the episode, Abdi's shrunken heads were meant to be handled! I picked up two of them. Each had a different element on the interior - one hard, the other soft, gummy and frankly grotesque to the touch. They carried their weight of the impending violence. On their necks, he had painted a yellow cross, the maker's mark. It brought to mind the Unabomber's own initials carved…[etc.]


You get the idea. I still think that the heads probably looked better in person, too—not just felt better.

Almost none of the contestants met the standard of “shocking” since, as Serrano pointed out, “It’s not easy to shock, especially on demand.” The one exception was Mark, who created a triptych of pedophiliac sexual assault that included a girl’s dress, stained underwear, and popped red balloon. It was so stomach-turning—yet not in the “gross-out” fashion that most of the artists went for—that the image was shown only briefly a few times on screen. (And that’s by the standards of Work Of Art, a show whose editors follow the aesthetics of a 1990s screen saver, afraid to leave any image on the screen too long for fear it will permanently burn in.)


Mark’s piece had problems. The red balloon is a cliché, and his title, “In An Instant,” was so Afterschool Special that it threatened to undermine the quiet tone of the piece with melodrama. But he still ought to have been in the Top 3 on the merits of startling composition alone.

Instead, this week, we again got only a Top 2, a trend that is doing a serious disservice to the show. When you have twice as many potential losers as winners, it sure makes it seem like the field of artists you’ve chosen is disproportionately untalented. But hey, Work Of Art producers, you freaking chose them, so how about you work a little harder to feature their successes, even when they're modest? Last week, the field was roundly mediocre, so a Top 2 seemed like an acceptable way to go. This week, Mark, Miles, and Peregrine all arguably had a shot at making the top group.


Yet only Jaclyn joined Abdi in the winner’s circle. She made it there by taking semi-nude portraits in the bathroom mirror for the second straight week. At first, her blurry photographs, censored with gold stars, had all the sophistication of a Perez Hilton Twitpic. Jaclyn was smart enough to be unsatisfied with this, so she took the advice of fellow artist Erik. He suggested that she put out a set of Sharpies and allow viewers to deface the photos however they saw fit, and when she did just that, it reworked the mirror motif in a compelling way. Adorned with anonymous graffiti, the images turned into reflections of the ugliness in the audience, and the piece really clicked.

Of course, then came the controversy, because the Sharpies were someone else’s idea. I concur with Bill and the other judges that Jaclyn didn’t need to feel guilty: She was the one who executed the concept and put her name behind it, so it’s legitimately her work. Yet she obviously did feel guilty. Otherwise, why would she straight-up lie during her critique and claim that the graffiti was all her idea? In a workroom where the artists appear to delight in collaborating with each other, Jaclyn’s selfish overreaching strikes me as an impolitic move that may poison the pool for her down the road.


Stray Observations:

— Steve Coogan!

— They’re starting to show Simon do some actual mentoring, and this is two weeks in a row they’ve gone to him for the mid-commercial-break comic-relief interlude. His visits are a highlight of the show for me. I used to love Tim Gunn, but Simon de Pury 2010 >>> Tim Gunn 2010. Here’s hoping Work Of Art doesn’t grind Simon down to a catchphrase-y bobblehead the way Project Runway did with Gunn.


— “Being gay, people are always noticing everything you do anyways.”

— “I better go take a dump on my picture so it’s more shocking.”

— Another snippet from Jeanne’s LiveJournal: “What could the artists have done to shock? Perhaps just throw away local conventions, breaking any of the gallery rules as a starting point. Thankfully, Abdi made a bomb.” Thankfully.


— Whoever comes up with the episode titles for this show is really phoning it in.

— I catch snippets of advertisements for this Bethenny Gets Married show when I stop the DVR fast-forwarding too early. I vaguely remember Bethenny as a runner-up on the Martha Stewart version of The Apprentice. Is she famous now? How did this happen?


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