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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Child’s Play”

Illustration for article titled Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Child’s Play”
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One difference between Project Runway and Work Of Art: On Project Runway, Ryan would have cried. As the show’s most likable artist talked about his mother—a Jehovah’s Witness who has essentially shunned him for deviating from the faith—you could tell that the camera was poised for Ryan to start bawling. Off screen, the field producer crouched in vampiric expectation of those sweet, sweet tears: This guy’s gonna break any second, and the female 18-34 demo will drink in his sorrow. Ryan didn’t break, though. He told his story matter-of-factly, without self-pity or theatrics, just simple emotion. It was moving rather than maudlin.

Until this week, it seemed Ryan’s problem was that he had no story to tell in his art, so I’m glad that the producers added some layers to his character before he was evicted from the studio. It turns out that he had depth—an emotionally rich perspective, in fact—but couldn’t find a way to express it. He produced another flat piece, a set of childlike drawings that couldn’t be rescued by his Hail Mary innovation of crumpling up sketches and construction paper on the floor in the gallery.

In Ryan’s defense, though, it was a weird, ill-conceived challenge. The artists were told to create a work that represented their process of becoming an artist. Art about becoming an artist? The dragon’s really eating its tail on this one. I don’t blame the contestants for being confused.

Given that the studio work took place in the Children’s Museum Of Art, most of the artists reverted to something along the lines of “create something … childhood-y.” Just as they got comfortable reconnecting with their inner child, Simon came in and told them to grow the hell up. He was right—making art that looks like a kid made it is an easy way to come off as a complete fake. It was the first time that sun-shiney Simon had rendered a blanket negative judgment, and his “you need to get your act together” sent the group into a mild depression.

Simon’s thunderbolt critique prompted a few of the artists to change course, but none of them got any better.

Ryan, as noted above, added crumpled paper to his initial concept of kiddie drawings.


Abdi, who had been working on another painting of himself as a superhero (this time as a sidekick to his superhero mom), scrapped that idea to draw a bunch of simple pictures, including the Nike swoosh, a car, and a straight line. The idea was that in his childhood, the other kids in school would always ask him to draw things, which is a neat starting point, but it didn’t go anywhere. He ultimately placed the drawings in a 6 x 6 square and prayed that the result would be instant art. While the first concept might have been more visually lively, Abdi’s comic-book-hero stuff doesn’t do anything for me. It’s not that I don’t like his painting style, just that this particular motif is less striking than he imagines. “My mom is awesome, so I made her a superhero.” “Barack Obama is awesome, so I made him a superhero.” Et cetera. The paintings work as pop art, but the shtick is shallow. This is not to slag on Abdi, who I generally like a lot. But he can produce much more compelling stuff (like the game-head sculpture from Week Two).

Jaclyn bemoaned the fact that “my childhood years weren’t necessarily the best years of my life,” thus she was at a disadvantage, because how can a troubled childhood inspire art? It’s probably impossible. When Simon shrugged at her initial idea—to smear paint on paper and then fold it to make a double smear—she made a weird diorama of a tree with pipe cleaners dangling from a clothesline. I don’t know what to say about this one, and neither did the judges.


These artists—the ones who had to reinvent their visions midstream—ended up in the bottom three. That might seem like the logical outcome, but last-minute inspiration often pays off on Work Of Art, so I was surprised that nobody could pull off the late surprise. Instead, the studio work was pretty humdrum, with the most successful artists pursuing one idea from start to finish.

Peregrine, who seems to have had the most messed-up childhood of anyone, won with her sculptural representation of growing up in the San Francisco art scene. The composition of candy and unicorns juxtaposed with condoms and cigarettes could have been crass, but Peregrine created a nice sense of environment. Her piece evoked both the messy floor in a child’s bedroom and the scattered garbage left over in the depressing aftermath of a too-wild party. The result was a specific, complex energy that the other pieces didn’t match.


Because it looks so plain on camera, Nicole’s work is often hard to evaluate. Her layered hanging sculpture looked like a distended stack of paper plates in a full shot, and the close-ups were too brief to get a good evaluation. Likewise, we only got a glimpse of Mark’s storybook. The Work Of Art production team needs to spend more time figuring out how to make these difficult-to-shoot pieces come alive on TV. You’d think this would be a higher priority.

That leaves Miles, who supplied this week’s Miles Controversy by rehashing an old idea that he’s executed before—a chunky pixel-art pattern made with squares of duct tape. Mark referred to this as “cheating,” but it’s not—no more than Abdi’s superhero paintings or Jaclyn’s nude self-portraits are cheating. Mark’s real beef seemed to be that Miles was ignoring the challenge, which is what Miles has done all along. “The key to staying in the competition is making the challenge work for your art,” he says, “and not the other way around.” That sounds right, but for that approach to be successful, you need talent. Miles, despite all his supposed douchiness, clearly has talent.


The gallery show demonstrated why Miles’ strategy works. Guest judge Will Cotton walked up to the piece, which looked great on the wall, and proclaimed that it reminded him of playing Space Invaders as a kid. Boom, Miles is safe. If your work is proficient enough, you can ignore the challenge and the judges will provide the interpretation for you. A work’s interaction with its context creates meaning, and Miles has shown that he’s aware of context.

Stray Observations:

— Will Cotton to Jaclyn: “When you’re in the studio, it’s important not to think about what other people can relate to. It’s just important that you can relate to it.” This is sound advice, but it might be a problem for Jaclyn. Her two most successful pieces—the self-portraits with a cup of markers and the mirrored male-gaze tableau—were borne out of a consideration of how the viewer would relate to the piece.


— We used to have a family friend whose daughter had cut off communication for the same reason as Ryan’s mother: our friend had left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t know enough about the religion to say if this is a common phenomenon or a perversion of the faith. But after seeing this episode, I gather that voluntarily shutting out a parent or child isn’t a unique story among the JW flock. That’s some pretty potent Christianity right there. (As for the family friend, she eventually ended up rejoining the church so she could reconnect with her daughter; we didn’t hear from her after that.)

— I was probably too harsh in my remarks about public art last week. Most public art is indeed bad, but then again, most of everything is bad, and I didn’t mean to imply that the field ought to be condemned entirely. It did result in a fun thread in the comments, though, with people sharing their favorite public artworks. So thanks for that.


— If you’re interested in such things, here are the Twitter accounts of Work Of Art personalities (the ones that I could find, at least).
Nicole: @NicoleNadeau. Cheery, Work Of Art-centric.
Mark: @MarkVelasquez. Bitter, spiteful, anti-Bravo,  anti-Jerry Saltz, topped off with a borderline pathological hatred of Miles. The Twitter embodiment of “taking the low road.” I'm going out on a limb and saying Mark doesn't win this thing.
Abdi: @abdiart. Sparkles and sunshine, lots of exclamation points. It’s Abdi.
Jaclyn: @Jaclyn_Santos. A MySpace page c. 2005 in the Twitter template. Scary
John: @JohnParot. Scattered, friendly, kind of boring.
Nao: @NaoBustamante. Upbeat, supportive. I miss Nao.
Erik: @plumprumpjumper. Predictably bitter. Classy username.
Simon: @simondepury. Absent.
China: @China_Chow. Absent with bag on head.