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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “The Big Show”

Illustration for article titled Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “The Big Show”
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Even over the course of a fairly short season—10 episodes—it’s hard to keep track of every detail in the Work Of Art saga. For instance, I had forgotten that Kymia’s father died in that jet-skiing accident, and that she was out there on the lake with him when he died, even though it was such a shocking story when I first heard it. When there are more than a dozen contestants and a new drama every week, certain things just fade from memory.

The people at Magical Elves know that our brains are fallible, so sometimes the producers try to implant false memories. For instance, tonight’s episode opens with a speedy retrospective of each finalist’s Work Of Art journey, beginning with Young. In a flashback, we see Bill telling Young, “When you come back to town, don’t bring the PC parade with you.” Ah, yes, don’t we all remember that time in a previous episode where the judges called Young out on the convenience and superficiality of his political commentary? HEY WAIT A MINUTE.

Work Of Art is trying to trick us! We’ve never seen this piece of footage before. For the whole season, the show has barely been able to catch its breath as it shoveled dollar-sign bags full of money in Young’s general direction. And now it’s trying to act all nonchalant, like, oh by the way, Young, could you stop doing that political-correctness thing because as everyone already knows, we are tired of it. It’s very crafty of the show to give this line to Bill, too, as nobody ever remembers what Bill says unless he’s being a huge dick to someone. (And, to his credit, he does find the jerkiest way to formulate this particular criticism—way to make it stick, Bill.)

This is the new order, supposedly the same as the old order: Everyone is weary of Young’s bullshit, including himself. “I think sometimes the political work that I make can be a bit ‘preaching to the choir,’” Young says in a testimonial, completely spontaneously.

The pattern of revisionism extends to Sara, who is clumsily ret-conned into the role of flirtatious sexpot now that Lola is gone. “Young, will you massage my vagina?” she says in a flashback clip. Oh, Sara! She sure is that member of the cast who was always flirting and talking about genitals…right?

I’m so confused. Fortunately, Kymia’s backstory doesn’t need any retouching; she’s the one that cries, always has been, always will be. Or, as she puts it for the people who are just now tuning in to the series, “I’m a nervous person. And I’m anxious and emotional.”


After the opening credits, Simon pays a visit to each of the artists as they prepare for the final gallery show. Simon drives to each one in a Fiat 500, the automobile that is “furnishing” $100,000 to the winner, according to China. Simon manages to look even more ridiculous driving this smush-nosed mutation of Herbie The Love Bug than Jennifer Lopez does in those commercials. You know, the ones where she is chased by a crowd of sexual deviants who scream and claw at her body until they finally force her to pull over so they can lift her writhing form from the car and have their way with her? Those are delightful!

Simon begins in Chicago, where Young has split his time between working on art and working on his mullet. Young’s boyfriend—the aforementioned appreciator of Young’s “pert” ass—is on hand, and Young’s mom is there, too. The boyfriend semi-gracefully steers the conversation to some picture books Young made as a child, which happen to be sitting right there on the coffee table. Simon pages through them and feigns interest with a polite smile, which on the Simon de Pury scale is the equivalent of taking a nap.


Do not lower your guard, M. De Pury, for Young has only just begun to bore the shit out of you. In his studio, Young unveils his new idea, which is to bring a large rectangle to places and photograph the rectangle in those places; also, Google Maps. It’s fitting that Young’s concept is a slick-looking frame with no substance in it.

Even accounting for the fact this it’s a work in progress, this idea is dull. Simon politely says that it’s “a bit boring,” and before Young can say, “What if I let people WRITE on the giant rectangle????” Simon drifts over to an impromptu shrine that Young has constructed in memory of his father. As he flips through a book of photographs that Young took in the last months of his dad’s life, Simon pushes Young to expand on this material. Young appears understandably hesitant to employ personal tragedy in the quest to win a TV reality show, but Simon gives him the hard sell, and ultimately, the choice between “painful death of a loved one” and “life-sized box of nothing” is not a hard one.


Simon chitty-chitty-bang-bangs his way back to Manhattan, where Kymia lives with Devon, her boyfriend. Devon is a “freelance photographer and a bartender,” which is the art-world term for “a bartender.” Kymia shows Simon the family photo album, and Simon gets all zut alors! over the pictures of Kymia’s mom in her smoking-hot Iranian youth. That’s Simon de Pury for you. It’s clear by now that the man has the sexual appetite of a methed-up college sophomore, yet somehow he expresses it with the utmost class.

Simon sees a great deal of potential in Kymia’s work (rightly so, in my opinion), and perhaps because of that, his commentary is especially blunt. Kymia has made a sequence of drawings and sculptures concerned with reincarnation and the afterlife. Simon is enamored with one of the drawings; he finds the sculpture “horrendous.” And it is. It looks like Kymia tried to reconstruct a Gahan Wilson cartoon she saw once, in three whole dimension, each more hideous than the last. And then there are the glass gems bursting from the figure’s eyes, two ocular nipples of shimmering failure.


Kymia says that she intends to include 15 works in her gallery show. “Quite frankly,” Simon says, “if you want 15 works, for me you have 14 more to do.” He’s right, that is quite frank. This pushes Kymia into the runny-mascara zone, although I say “push” when all it takes with her is a light tap. She wonders aloud how she’ll pull everything together if “all of the work is practically not worthy of the show.” Simon kindly tries to reassure her, insisting, “No, no, no, I did not say that.” Silly Kymia. Why does she focus on the 93.3 percent of the work that Simon said was not worthy? Her glass is 6.7 percent full.

Over at her Brooklyn studio, Sara tells Simon that her project centers on “this ritual of confession in Catholicism.” She shows him a video of herself out on the street, dressed as a bulbous creature with a belly into which people could deposit written confessions of their deepest secrets. Her long-beaked bird mask reminds me of the doctors in Assassin’s Creed 2, but that’s only because my visual image of Renaissance-era Europe has been formed primarily by a video game where you stab lots of people in the throat.


Simon doesn’t sound too excited about any part of Sara’s work so far. Her paintings of spectators who watched her confession-bird performance are “caricatural” in his estimation, and he’s not impressed with the mattress of syringes or the enormous cobweb, either. There’s a “disconnect between the sculptural element and the works on paper,” he says, and it’s a disconnect that will remain in her final product.

The artists “arrive” back in New York, which for two of them means that they hopped in a cab. In the hotel suite, Young fantasizes about the globetrotting lifestyle of Simon: “He probably arrived from his private jet, from seeing a Beyoncé concert, having dinner with…”—here Young pauses a moment to play a little game of Name Any Famous Swiss Person in his head—“…Roger Federer. He just finds a way to fit it all in.”


You know those guys who dress up in big fruit costumes for Fruit Of The Loom underwear commercials? Isn’t it so unfair that they’ve never had a plum as one of the fruits? I mean, they’re selling men’s briefs—plums are right in their wheelhouse, so to speak. That’s what I believe, at least, and I know one person who agrees with me: China Chow. She makes her own powerful case for Giant Human Plum Awareness when she greets the artists at Phillips de Pury. Of course, I don’t think plums are generally as drapey—in truth, she looks more like Grimace if he got lap-band surgery—but her dedication to the cause is admirable all the same. Solidarity!

Simon says that he intends to include one work from the winning show in a “major” Phillips de Pury auction (i.e., he’ll shell out the extra $0.60 for the “Fancy” listing style on eBay). China tells the artists for the zillionth time that one-of-you-will-be-the-winner-of-Work-Of-Art-The-Next-Great-Artist, and then she rushes off because if she’s not home before midnight, she turns into a prune! Ha ha, sorry, just a little Giant Human Plum Awareness humor there, folks. We find that laughter soothes the pain.


Some minor mishaps occur while the artists set up. The pedestals for Kymia’s “burial mounds” are a few inches too short, and Young has to fiddle with the projector, much like every human being who has ever tried to set up a video projector.

Then it’s time for the gallery show. China changes into a new optical illusion and introduces today’s guest judge, the vinyl-toy artist KAWS. Kymia exclaims that they coincidentally saw one of his works the day before, at that place where the producers told them to go and admire any huge pieces of public art they might encounter. Small world!


Sara’s show still features the syringe mattress and the glue web. (“It’s not that good for a hot glue web,” Lola says—she’s seen better.) There are a pair of macabre watercolors, a hairshirt dress-and-bikini set, a dead-skin-cell self-portrait, and a thousand paper cranes bursting forth from a birdcage. Plus, of course, the confession-soliciting bird itself.

It’s a lot of work, and while a couple of individual pieces shine—the paper cranes are quite beautiful—they don’t cohere. The underlying idea just hasn’t been built out enough to support all this weight. The walking confessional comes off as a performative variation on PostSecret, that website where angsty college students combine the powers of Blogger and the U.S. Postal Service to convince themselves that anyone could give a shit about their hidden truths. That’s not to say that the bird-on-the-street confessional is a bad idea. I think it’s cool and intriguing. Yet Sara spent too much time iterating on the idea and not enough time developing it. That’s a fine distinction but a critical one.


Young’s exhibit is a presentation of his late father in the twilight of his life. While it’s a moving show, I don’t find it to be an especially stimulating one. It includes family photos (a lot of them), an intricate shrine, and selected entries from Young’s journal. Young shoehorns the box of nothing into the exhibit, and surprise, it adds nothing. The only truly unfortunate elements, though, are the clotheslines of dress shirts, which look really rough. It’s hard to make laundry pop.

Explicating one’s soul is not the same as baring it, and Young mistakes the former for the latter. It’s hard to criticize his show too much because if it were the main exhibit in a Historical Museum Of Young’s Dad, it would be a refined and affecting tribute. But that’s not the museum we’re in, so I think Young misjudges his purpose here. The result is a failure to engage the audience in a lasting way.


It is also hard to criticize Kymia’s show; in this case because it’s so accomplished. Her exhibit (titled “Not For Long, My Forlorn”) explores death, decomposition, and reincarnation. Kymia presents a series of drawings, most on paper, some on acetate. The sculptural elements of the show thankfully don’t include the gem-eyed homunculus—rather, there’s a metal-feather headdress and three burial mounds. Bill and KAWS call out the burial mounds as redundant, as they accomplish nothing that isn’t already conveyed more compellingly in the drawings, and they’re right.

But even that is a compliment in a roundabout way, because it gets at how powerful the drawings are. Kymia fills the figures in her images with intricate detail that’s both meticulous and primal. They all have a sense of earthy decay, tightly contained. She contrasts this dirt-bound feel against expanses of white space to tease us with the mystery of some other, purer plane of existence—a dynamic that is most convincing in her drawing of the skiff filled with soil, with a pair of legs casting a shadow against the sail. When I saw that piece, Kymia had won the competition for me.


The crit and the judges’ deliberations are fairly routine. The editors have some fun making Bill look like a heel every time Jerry disagrees with him, which seems to be more often lately. Bill tells Kymia that her drawings on acetate “felt like studies,” and Jerry shakes his head in the middle of Bill’s sentence, which makes Bill pout and mutter because Jerry is being a disagreeing meanie again.

Later, when Bill says that Kymia’s sculptures “could be edited out,” Jerry says, “EHHHHHH, I actually liked seeing the change in medium.” After this, there’s a shot of Bill’s face being sort of twitchy, which we’re supposed to take as rage, but this soup is awfully thin. I think that if I were forced to sit on those uncomfortable barstools for hours on end, the editors would probably get some footage of fidgety glowers from me, too.


Final decision. Sara is the first to go, which narrows it down to Young and Kymia. Sara construes her early dismissal as a third-place finish. Maybe. Or maybe the producers wanted to torment us a little longer with the prospect of a Young win.

Mercifully, it is not to be: “Congratulations, Kymia,” China says, turning the runny-mascara woman who can draw real good into the art world’s newest hundred-thousandaire. That concludes the second season of Work Of Art, a season that had less TV intrigue than the first but also ended up fielding a more talented field of artists, especially for the final show. And while these last few episodes may have felt somewhat anticlimactic, just think: Every season now brings us one step closer to the inevitable all-star season, which will see the return of Miles Mendenhall, The Sucklord, Crohn’s-Disease Lady Who Always Makes Guts, and a cast of other zany characters. In the name of art, you see.


Stray Observations:

  • The Sucklord on his Jerry Saltz action figure: “It’s sort of a thing in the toy world to do a glow-in-the-dark version of bald, Jewish art critics.” Line of the night. He certainly makes the most of his glorious, fleeting return.
  • Lola: “I’ll put my witch’s hat on for you!” Oh, hey, Lola. Still working the whole witch angle, huh? Yup.
  • Bill: “Some artists really went to their strengths, and other people really surprised me.” How many artists did Bill think were in this gallery show? Did he wander off to other parts of the building?
  • More Bill: “Seeing all the shirts here, it had a sympathetic magic.”
  • Thank you for reading my reviews this season, and thanks for all your comments. I really enjoy the conversation we have here; you all bring a great mix of thoughtful and funny.
  • And now, your Strange Simon de Pury YouTube Video Of The Year. Yes, of course, we have to end on this. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the auction.