Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Make It Pop”

Illustration for article titled Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “Make It Pop”
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This episode opens on the artists at home, reveling as Bayeté regales them with stories of his victory in the previous challenge. The life drains from Michelle’s eyes as she contemplates the fact that she was deemed the runner-up to Bayeté’s work—a video that was kind of like spin art except that it used empty narcissism in lieu of paint. Her takeaway is that lazy self-indulgence is the path to victory, a lesson that she applies with gusto in this episode.

The artists head to the New York Phillips de Pury auction house, where they must follow a line of tin cans throughout the building, Hansel and Gretel style, until they arrive at the big payoff: Andy Warhol’s famous portrait of a Campbell’s soup can. The painting itself is surrounded by many tin cans. Keep in mind that this is a program where the contestants are often told by members of the cast that they are being “too literal.”

Simon brags that he has sold Andy Warhol works many times, which leads China—looking adorable in her goth-Smurf frock—into this week’s challenge. The contestants must create a piece of pop art. Young is thrilled by the Warhol inspiration. “One of my recent performances was based on a series of screen prints that he’d done of camouflage patterns,” Young explains. There’s a picture of him in what appears to be an “industrial mishap at the Reese’s Pieces plant” Halloween costume, and indeed it looks to be a fitting tribute. Warhol always said that the one thing missing from his camouflage series was a goofy-looking Asian kid in a bodysuit.

The Sucklord decides to base his work on phrases that Charlie Sheen uttered this year, stuff about “winning” and “warlocks” and “tiger blood.” And when you hear The Sucklord give the rundown, it does sound like Sheen said some pretty silly things! You’d think that by now, people would have taken the Charlie Sheen thing and twisted it into every possible permutation, spewing it across millions of tweets and fantasy-football-team names and hastily designed CafePress T-shirts, until the phenomenon saturated the conversation so completely that you felt like you had “winning!” jokes seeping out of your eye sockets, and then Sheen would try to capitalize on the buzz with an incredibly lame concert tour, and the whole joke would go from funny to mortifyingly uncool with astonishing speed, and people would sort of remember that Sheen is an abusive misogynist asshole, and we’d all feel dirty and try to forget this embarrassing episode in American culture ever happened. But nope! Luckily, The Sucklord is the first guy to think of it.

Tewz asks Young to define pop art. Tewz knows what pop art is, obviously! He just wants to see if Young knows what it is, too. It’s a test, see. “Pop is about mass communication. It’s about what everyone experiences together,” Young says. “That’s what I thought!” Tewz replies, a little too quickly. He’s just THAT delighted that Young explained what Tewz himself was already thinking.

The pop-art challenge gives Tewz a huge advantage, as far as he’s concerned. “I grew up on Nintendo and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so pop culture is a big part of me,” he says. Of course, as Young just told him (and which he already totally knew), the whole idea is that everybody grew up with that stuff, so it’s hard to see where he gains an edge. Maybe he was the rare child who played Nintendo a whole lot.


It’s our first bathroom photo session of the season, and the first nudity, so you can cross those two boxes off your Work Of Art bingo cards. Although I would have given even odds that Lola would be the first to disrobe in season two, it’s actually Kymia, who photographs herself for an ersatz bottled-water ad. It’s a decent concept, especially for the pop-art challenge, and especially with the gloomy subway-ad presentation that she eventually gives the piece.

The show tricks us into thinking Lola is going to go topless—“It’s fine, I’ll do whatever,” she says to the Sucklord when he invites her to take her shirt off. Despite her professed attraction to the man/deity, Lola keeps it on. That’s probably best for The Sucklord, who says that his girlfriend would “literally cut my bawls off” if he got frisky with this young reality-show ingenue. Lola does, however, muster up her best smoldering gaze for the lens of Sucklord’s $75 point-and-shoot. Oh, the glamour!


We learn that Jazz-Minh’s sister Asia got a tattoo on the inside of her bottom lip, and then Jazz-Minh decided to get one, too. When I was growing up, my siblings and I called that “being a goddamn copycat,” but Jazz-Minh discusses her act of familial plagiarism as if she shaved her head in tribute to a chemo patient: “I decided that, in solidarity with Asia, I was also going to get a tattoo on the inside of my lip.”

It is a proud stand, yet it is also a great burden for Jazz-Minh, as she is wise enough to know that not everyone shares her bravery: “It’s that statement that I wish Britney Spears had the power to make.” Yes, if only Britney Spears tattooed her inner lip and flaunted it for the cameras! No tabloid would call her a crazy person ever again.


Simon arrives with a sidekick, Entertainment Weekly managing editor Jess Cagle. The winning artist and their work will receive a two-page spread in the magazine. In other words: Kymia, you will not be winning this challenge. Simon then delivers some bad news. “This will be a DOUBLE elimination!” he cries, in the same tone of voice he would use to tell the artists that they get TWO butterscotch sundaes at lunch today!

Kymia fills in her backstory by talking about her father’s death in a jet-skiing accident, the most wrenching dead-relative story I’ve seen on TV in a while. And that’s saying something, because Project Runway has basically been Orphans On Parade this season.


Sara observes that kids love that texting. She says, “Social-networking sites and communication via technology is allowing people all over the world to change their lives and overthrow their dictators.” Therefore, she is sculpting a Thomas Friedman op-ed circa 2005.

Politics are also on Young’s mind, as he’s making a large print about Proposition 8, the California anti-marriage-equality ballot measure. He says that he’s “not making a specific comment one way or the other,” which sounds unpromising until he reveals that he will be supplying viewers with markers so that they can write their thoughts on the back of his piece. Ding-ding-ding! Letting people write shit on your art in Work Of Art is the equivalent of spinning three jokers on The Joker’s Wild: You might as well just punch your ticket to the bonus round. Although to be fair, in later seasons of The Joker’s Wild, they would still make you demonstrate knowledge with a brainteaser like, “Fill in the blank: The author of Poor Richard’s Almanack was Benjamin Frank___.” Work Of Art does not require that level of effort from its instant winners.


Simon strides in, providing his own fanfare: “Hello everyone! And now, I’m ready for my studio visit!” He mistakes the dirty water in Kymia’s piece for a Pimms No. 1 cocktail, and when Kymia responds with a blank stare, he elaborate that it’s something English folk drink during Wimbledon, and they put a lot of fruit in it. You know, a Pimms No. 1! He can’t believe he is standing there having to explain Pimms No. 1 to this ignorant woman.

The Simon de Pury Squint Of Skepticism appears as he examines Dusty’s fast-food trashcan, which reads “HOW COULD YOU” on its front flap. Dusty defends himself by nothing that “it references fast food and recycling, which is a hot topic right now,” at least according to that back issue of Field & Stream at the taxidermist’s waiting room.


Simon is also dubious of Leon’s insipid piece, which puts corporate logos on top of the American flag. Simon warns Leon that the flag “has been used so extensively” that it’s hard to make it feel fresh. Leon responds, “I think the American flag goes with it because they’re logos of this country’s biggest companies,” as if this would prompt Simon to slap his forehead and remark, “Ohhhh, NOW I get it!!!”—and perhaps weep at Leon’s profound insight that some corporations are based in the United States.

One difference between Simon and Tim Gunn is that Simon generally gives artists a single chance to listen to his advice, and if they’re not getting it, he’s done. He seems to decide that if they want to hang themselves, so be it. So rather than waste time trying to convince Leon, Simon turns to his Magic Eight Ball: Banal Artist Advice Edition and mutters “keep it simple” before disappearing in a puff of ridiculously enthusiastic smoke.


The scandal of the week is that The Sucklord spills white paint on Jazz-Minh’s lip-tattoo self portrait. She decides that it totally works—“I could never make as lovely a paint splatter as he made”—because it is easier to sputter some mumbo-jumbo about spontaneity and control than it is to print out another copy of the photograph. “Thank you for not cutting my bawwls off!” says The Sucklord. Would somebody just go ahead and brutally castrate this fellow already? He can’t stop thinking about it.

The guest judge at the gallery show is artist Rob Pruitt. He is famous for making a mirrored sculpture of Andy Warhol, who, as we know from this episode, is the only pop artist in history.


Bayeté, who created extreme close-ups of Kymia for his entry in the challenge, tells Kymia to her face that it “is the one piece in my life that I hate.” Of course, he is speaking only for himself. For me, trying to rank Bayeté’s pieces would be like asking which of my children I hate the most. I hate them all equally, and I don’t even have kids.

Time for the crit. Two artists, Kymia and Young, are chosen for the ring of honor. Predictably, the judges love the “interactive” component of Young’s Proposition 8 work, and they also appreciate its relevance. “This is such a political, social issue right now,” China says. She’s that Siri program from the iPhone with wackier clothes.


The judges must declare a winner, and the suspense is overwhelming. “Bare unretouched tits and dirty water” or “colorful markers”—which one will be chosen to advertise this basic-cable reality show in a glossy, mass-market publication? It’s colorful markers in a squeaker!

On to the failures. Bill uses Leon’s flags-’n’-logos exercise as an opportunity to be condescending to a deaf person. “I would imagine, being deaf, that something like Facebook really enables a level of communication that was previously unavailable, and I was surprised you didn’t speak to that,” Bill says, because the Internet didn’t truly exist as a venue for personal expression until Mark Zuckerberg allowed deaf people to send Mafia Wars requests to each other on it.


Leon’s explanation collapses in on itself. Pop art isn’t about an artist’s personal experience, he says, but he’s not here to change the audience’s perspective, just to relate his personal experience. His very important message is that companies have logos, and the U.S. flag is also a thing, so: irony? Pruitt shuts him down. “It’s not a bad story to tell; it’s just bad storytelling.” Ouch.

I’ll grant that Dusty’s take on the McDonald’s trashcan is not so great, but it doesn’t have the same emptiness as the other works in the bottom four. It does at least say something, interrogating the blissful haze of a fast-food meal in a crisp, accessible manner. Bill says that “people just walked by this thing,” but Simon’s bravotv.com blog entry (“Dusty’s work got a number of very favorable reactions from the visitors to the gallery show”) begs to differ. What Bill means is that nobody left any comments on his Wall about the trashcan piece, and therefore it does not exist. China, too, is disgusted with Dusty’s work: “Dusty, did you ever consider using, bright, pop-y colors for this?” FOR EXAMPLE BLUE??????


The Britney Spears angle doesn’t come through in Jazz-Minh’s self-portrait diptych, so the fundamental truth of her piece—that she was looking for the first opportunity to show off her cool, totally original lip tattoo—is all that remains. Michelle’s Coke Zero painting doesn’t fool anyone, either. “You’re just shoveling every pop idea you can get you hands on and making a realist painting out of it,” he tells Michelle, cutting to the quick as usual. He makes a shoveling motion as he offers this critique. I approve.

The four disgraced artists line up for the final humiliation. The judges read spontaneous zingers off the index cards in their heads. Jazz-Minh and Leon are gone. “I don’t have any skill in hearing,” Leon says, “but certainly in seeing.” And in FarmVille! But don’t expect him to water Bill’s eggplants anytime soon.


Stray Observations:

  • Note to self: Make Work Of Art bingo cards.
  • “What if it’s a physical challenge?”
  • I wonder what it’s like to grow up as a white kid named Asia and still not even come close to having the weirdest name in your family.
  • I appreciate how the editors go out of their way to make China look foolish.
  • Here is your Strange Simon de Pury YouTube Video Of The Week. Within the first minute, he not only refers unironically to “the YouTube,” but he also encourages people to watch that bizarre “If I Had A Hammer” video! Honestly, it doesn’t get much better after that. I do like the very end, though, where Simon essentially tells this room of self-impressed twerps that he has better things to do and then makes a hasty exit.