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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “La Dolce Arte”

Illustration for article titled Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “La Dolce Arte”
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“La Dolce Arte” marks an epochal shift in Work Of Art season two, as the program transitions from the Sucklord era into a troubling future. Fittingly, the artists hold a mourning session at their luxury-condo blackboard. They cross his name off the list, continuing the tradition that the poor dear used to love so much. Parting is such magenta-chalky sorrow!

“Somebody’s got to fill the role of ‘loud and obnoxious,’” Dusty muses. “I can do it,” Lola says. Dusty’s mouth hangs half-open as he searches for a reply, but her tellingly earnest reply to his facetious remark is too pathetic to pursue any further.

Dusty’s in luck, sort of, as there’s a change of subject at the ready. In the last episode, Dusty promised Young that if their team won, he would don Young’s trademark short shorts. Of course, as soon as Young had the let-people-write-on-it “epiphany,” it was a virtual lock that the Bravo TV audience would soon be seeing those bright Arkansan gams.

When Young brings the micro-trousers out for the group’s approval, Dusty remarks, “I can’t even get my junk in those things!” Yet like so many great Southern men before him, Dusty manages to cram his purportedly massive member into the shorts, looking like a 1980s NBA player, except completely not like that.

Of course, the Magical Elves have never met a funny moment they couldn’t overproduce, so Dusty’s impromptu modeling session is embellished with photo-album freeze frames and shutter-click noises, as if to say, “Guys! Guys! The craziest thing about this scene is, there were CAMERAS in the room! Y’know, to put stuff on TELEVISION. You are ‘watch what happens’-ing on Bravo; is that a mind-blower, or what?” Should you ever want to explain modern American TV to someone in 30 seconds or less, this clip should come in handy.

The artists head to the gallery space, where they find an Official Sponsor Of Work Of Art Fiat 500, fully dismantled. The car’s parts are arranged tidily across the floor. The challenge is to create a work that incorporates at least one of these parts. Simon rattles off the names of some other artists who have made art from cars, because if those people have done something sort of relevant to this challenge, the exercise must implicitly have the high-art seal of approval. (In fairness, it is much more palatable than last year’s “get in touch with your Audi soul” challenge.)


China offers the art-testants yet another pot sweetener, promising $25,000 to the winner. Come on, Work Of Art, that’s enough. What once was a fairly harmless, occasional bonus has now become the show’s most obnoxious form of manipulation. A large part of the show’s appeal is the unpredictability and individuality of the artists—by their nature, they’re less inclined than your average reality-TV star to fall in line with the expectations of the production. The constant stream of money only dampens this.

Every reality show has that tension between the cast and the producers, as the former party tries to define their image and the latter tries to define it for them. Season one was electrified by Miles’ efforts to challenge the producers’ authority by force-feeding them too much of what they wanted. For a few fleeting moments, he was able to grab the wheel and steer the show himself. And those moments were exciting, because in this battle of wills, the people behind the camera obviously have the huge advantage. The producers of a reality show are like the house in a game of blackjack where the players aren’t allowed to look at their cards.


That’s why the recurring cash prize has become so irritating. It’s a lot less likely that a struggling artist is going to lash out with something subversive when a $25,000 check is being dangled over their heads. Big money is the most ham-fisted way for the show to both manufacture trite suspense and make the artists fall in line—a gratuitous bully move by producers who are already blessed with a massive degree of control. So, anyway, enough.

Back in the studio, Lola bemoans the fact that  “other people decide things more arbitrarily than I do,” which is true in its own way, given that she never decides anything. Dusty asks to borrow a bottle of Vaseline and then heads to the bathroom for some alone time. Because he wants to make a mold of his face, obviously. Kymia helps Dusty apply the last bits of molding compound on top of his eyes, and he writes a note asking her to return in seven minutes.


She instead leaves him there to die, Cask Of Amontillado style. Seven minutes pass, then 10, then 13, and Dusty’s panic grows. Eventually, her subconscious guilt gets the best of her, and Kymia “realizes” that she must rush to the aid of a wheezing, disoriented Dusty. They pull off the would-be death mask and assess their work. It was not worth it.

Lola mixes up mineral compounds to resurface the intricate metal parts she took from the gallery floor. Young makes an innocuous remark that Lola’s steaming pot resembles a “witch’s brew.” This lame half-joke would have passed without notice if not for the fact that Lola is currently the Designated Villain, and therefore the STORYLINE!!!! klaxon goes off in the control room.


So some segment producer feeds Lola a question about the witch thing, and she free-associates nonsensically for a while in the hopes that if she says the word “witch” enough, the editors will have something to use: “First of all, I’d like to clarify that I’m a good witch. In fact, my grandmother, she’s a witch and a healer, and she’s been teaching me some witchy ways since I was very, very young, so yes, I can make things happen if I really want them.” Goodness, she is adorable! She thinks!

Simon arrives for his studio visit. He likes Sarah K.’s car-seat “Rorschach tests.” He’s less impressed by Lola’s mineral-encrusted car parts. So Lola waves her hand around at a bunch of other crap she’s got going on the floor. “I got some doors as well,” she mutters. Simon remains unconvinced. “As ever, I’m fairly skeptical seeing you at this stage of the game. So far, none of your ideas seem to completely impress me all that much. I hope you will truly impress the judges. Thank you so much!” It’s the classic Simon de Pury formulation: No matter how harsh his critique may be, he always leaves a verbal mint on the pillow before he departs.


Simon opens Michelle’s consultation by asking her if she forgot which episode it is: “Are you preparing something for the children’s challenge?” So it’s understandable that she’s a little shaky as she explains her exploded-internal-organs man. Simon says that the work seems like a reference to Michelle’s traumatic car accident and asks, “Is this a very personal piece for you?” She says no, and Simon cocks his head in irritated surprise. He seems to be thinking, c’mon lady, I’m holding the door open for you, are you going to walk through it or not?

She is not. So Simon proposes a thought experiment, challenging her to consider “whether you want to do this idea, or whether you want to go with something a little different.” This time, Michelle takes the hint.


The session with Kymia is a nice scene. Her kaleidoscope of key shavings isn’t glittering the way she had hoped, and she flat-out tells Simon that she’s feeling uninspired. He’s concerned and hunkers down with Kymia over her misbegotten contraption, trying to figure out a way forward. It’s more of a collaboration than a mentor-protégé thing, and it’s sweet how Simon dispenses with some of his critical distance in the face of Kymia’s despair. He provides a coda to this moment with a rousing speech before he heads off: “Those of you who are feeling down, forget about it. Feel positive. Feel you’ve got it inside you!” As the doors swing closed, one of the artists says, “I love him.” Yup.

The artists work themselves into a froth over cash, in particular the cash that Young has won—a total of $35,000 so far. “Young’s pockets are heavy with money,” her voice laden with the same knee-buckling desire that Homer Simpson might use to discuss rich creamery butter. Kymia also bemoans Young’s wealth. But their anger feels hollow. I want them to be fed up with Young because he has won three times with a rather thin body of work, not just because they want his money. It’s supposed to be about the art, and the relative crappiness thereof! Instead, as Kymia says, “it’s about the money.”


Michelle is still searching for her big idea. Working with the front grille of the sporty, attractive, surprisingly affordable so contact your local dealer Fiat 500, Michelle endeavors to make another grille out of paper, which she will hang below the real thing. It looks pretty depressing, and so the papercraft becomes the “sad” version of the car.

On the morning of the gallery show, Michelle gets the idea for an entirely new piece, so she fogs up a couple of car windows and smears them with hands and body parts as if something lurid is taking place inside. It’s certainly a slapdash effort, but it has more energy than happy-car/sad-car—and some semblance of an idea—so I wonder what would have happened if Michelle had the courage to go through with this last-minute effort.


The guest judge for the gallery show is photographer and performance artist Liz Cohen. She, too, has created automobile-related artworks (some pretty badass ones judging by the samples we see on screen), so this Fiat project is simply drowning in artistic validation at this point. One of Cohen’s photograph series features the bikini-clad artist rocking her hot body in the context of a greasy auto-body shop, the rare work that manages to challenge perceptions of gender while also giving your average Maxim photographer something he can point to and say, “See? The stuff I do is art, too.”

It’s not the most memorable exhibition. Kymia’s kaleidoscope, barely functional to begin with, goes even further south when the light bulb fizzles out.


Young once again dares to embrace the thuddingly obvious, making a human figure out of car parts and wiring. It looks like it was stolen from the sculpture garden at the Lansing Children’s Museum.

Dusty and Young are safe, leaving the five women behind for the crit. “It’s ladies only tonight, huh?” Bill says. Good God, he is smooth.


Sara J. glued pieces of car-seat foam to the back end of an exhaust pipe (with muffler still attached) to create a striking sculpture that looks great in the gallery. When Sara was working on this piece, I thought it would carry an anti-automotive message, given that it draws attention to this billowing cloud of exhaust. That mild transgressive quality remains to a degree in the finished piece, but the “cloud” looks more like a sparkling crystal—far cleaner than you’d expect cut-up styrofoam to work.

“Someone was calling it the ‘Muffler Of Solitude,’” Bill says, “because it was almost like exhaust from Superman’s car.” Yes, right, an unnamed “someone” noticed the Superman connection. Spoken like a man who can’t admit to his fancy art-world friends that he spends every Wednesday night hiding under the covers in his bedroom, reading superhero comics and eating Funyuns until the batteries in his flashlight run out.


“You know, he made the Fortress Of Solitude,” Bill adds, just so everyone understands the reference that Someone was making.

Sarah K.’s work features the “hides” of two seats from the Fiat, one displayed with its smooth leather exterior facing out, and the other with all the seams showing. The contrast between the two pelts creates a visual charge and lends an animalistic rawness to these manufactured items. Bill notes that “the two most successful pieces tonight let the materials guide you.” He’s also struck by how the inky black tendrils of Sarah’s work evoke the Venom Symbiote as rendered in The Amazing Spider-Man #300, but he chooses not to speak of this.


Sara J. wins. She will now be able to afford graduate school. Even better, she gets to stick around and affect a nouveau riche air while looking down on the night’s failures.

Those failures begin with Lola. Her exhibit consists of her labeled drawing, the mineralized metal parts, and a plastic sheet with smears that I don’t know what it is. Neither do the judges. Bill quite generously says that there are “a lot of interesting ideas” on display, but “they cloud each other.” Cohen suggests that, to achieve an archaeological feel, Lola might have placed the metal pieces on the ground. Lola whines that she doesn’t get to supervise the installation of her work as much as she’d like, and Cohen retorts, “Welcome to the art world! There will always be parameters.” It’s true, although it’s tough to craft a snappy comeback that uses the word “parameters.”


Lola blubbers something about how “the fear of failure has been pushing me in too many directions,” but her sadness is too boring for anyone to care, so they move on.

There’s not much to say about Kymia’s broken black box. Jerry says, “You overbuilt this piece the way you overbuilt other pieces,” although I can’t call to mind which pieces he’s talking about. Any ideas?


China, meanwhile, can’t get past the name of Kymia’s piece. “When I saw the title that said Key To The Universe—to live up to such a monumental title, it’s just too big a task,” says the host of Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist.

For Michelle’s crit, China’s positronic matrix shifts into full sad mode, and you can’t blame her. Michelle’s paper car grille sags from its moorings, devoid of any reason to be. “Just putting googly eyes on it isn’t going to cut it,” Bill says, and Jerry chides her, “of all people,” for going away from personal experience on this challenge. Indeed! Why oh why, on an episode that’s sponsored by a car company and features a large cash reward, would Michelle be wary of making art about a horrific car crash? Verily, it is an enigma.


The judges confer. China says that she is “really disappointed to see these three in the bottom tonight,” which raises the question, which three artists would she prefer to see in the bottom? Apparently she keeps a Nixonian enemies list, probably written in blood (that is to say, written in Castrol Hypuron Synthetic Blend Lubricant). None of the other judges address this, though, as they are too busy barfing out every car pun they can think of. Jerry says the bottom three “just ended up spinning their wheels.” Bill concurs: “Talk about caught in the headlights, right?”

When the artists return, China slams Kymia again for the naming issue. “Your title promised us the key to the universe,” China says, “but what you really gave us was a black box that was a portal to nowhere”—a thing that, you have to admit, sounds pretty much as cool as a key to the universe.


Michelle is out. Before the artists can leave the stage, though, Bill realizes that the episode is almost over and he hasn’t had his signature Bill-Powers-being-kind-of-a-dick moment. So he musters up his best impression of an exasperated stepdad for this sneering lecture: “And Lola, I just wanna say, if you’re gonna make mistakes, please make some new ones? I don’t want to have this conversation again.” Or else you will lose phone privileges for a WEEK, young lady.

Stray Observations:

  • Many thanks to Myles McNutt for reviewing the show a couple weeks back, while I was traveling. It was fun to get another take on the show. Much obliged!
  • I’m pretty sure that Sara J.’s “DIVORSE” misspelling from earlier in the season was intentional. I’m less confident about Lola’s “inpatiently tapping to conceal fear” caption.
  • In this week’s silly segment, Kymia recasts Cars 2 using other contestants to fill the roles. Dusty is the truck!
  • Here is your Strange Simon de Pury YouTube Video Of The Week. Does Simon’s trademark zest translate into Russian (or whatever this language is)? The Internet brings us the answer: not really.
  • BONUS YouTube video! Here is a short profile of this week’s guest judge Liz Cohen. It’s interesting enough, but my favorite part comes 20 seconds from the end, when semi-exiled Work Of Art judge Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn makes an abrupt, incredibly brief appearance. Why don’t people want this woman on camera?