Even more than Project Runway and Top Chef, Bravo’s latest “Can this dude make a thing better than that other dude?” reality competition series Work Of Art is less about what it’s like to be a professional creative person than it is about what it’s like to be a student. Watching the first episode last week, I was reminded frequently of Dan Clowes’ comic book story “Art School Confidential” (later made into a not-so-good movie), especially when gazing upon that clown-trapped-in-a-palette monstrosity, and when hearing the art-estants defensively explain their work in front of the judges. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of the show so far, but I worry a little that the artists who are good at advancing bold concepts and defending them eloquently might have an edge, not unlike college kids who know how to snow their professors and get top grades. And I don’t want this to be Top Bullshitter.
Tonight’s episode though showed that a significant amount of bullshit is pretty much inevitable when it comes to making, explaining, and evaluating art. In “The Shape Of Things To Come,” the artists were taken to a warehouse full of discarded electronics, given a speech about how there’s “something romantic and poetic about a found object” (which is true), and told to take these particular found objects and turn them into a sculpture that comments on our relationship to technology.
The artworks themselves were fairly strong, I thought—but then I’ve always liked gallery shows with moving parts. (Makes me feel like I’m 10 years old again and on a field trip to the local science museum.) What wasn’t so strong was all the jibber-jabber surrounding those artworks. Mark, for example, turned an old TV into a icon fit for a Day Of The Dead parade, all the while explaining that “TV has now replaced established religions in a way,” and how he was sure his work would be considered controversial because it had crosses painted on it. Uh-huh.
Even Nicole, who made one of the most interesting pieces when she filled a TV console with sedimentary layers of gadgetry, sounded like a tool when she explained what she was up to. (“So it, like, references American culture?”) And Judith tried to use words to cover up a total lack of inspiration, saying of her unstructured tangle of wires, “The old cords kind of took on a life of their own.” (Translation: “I got nothin’.”)
To be fair, the critics rightly trashed Judith’s work. They also, for the second week in a row, slammed a piece that was more design than art when they ripped apart Jamie Lynn’s “vacuum cleaner in kitschy painted backdrop” sculpture. But as Jamie Lynn herself pointed out, she’s not a sculptor, she’s a painter. And it’s hard to argue vis-a-vis Work Of Art—as I easily can with other reality competition shows—that the contestants ought to be more versatile. A chef should be able to cook anything, but who demands that an upper-echelon painter also know how to sculpt?
Then again, I find a lot of the usual reality-comp business bizarre in this art-world context—like the cockiness of some of the artists, and the dolled-up looks of some. On the flip side, Work Of Art is one of the few shows like this where the utter eccentricity of the participants seems less like an affectation. Artists are often weird and pretentious by nature, and though that makes them poor TV company at times, it also makes Work Of Art more interesting in some ways. The “reality” part of “reality competition” kicks in hard here. Will these oddballs be able stand each other?
So far, the biggest oddball is Miles, who made a big deal this week about his sleep deprivation and his OCD, then turned those weaknesses into strengths by building an uncomfortable bed for his sculpture and sleeping on it during the gallery show. His sleeping irritated some of his fellow contestants, as did his use of smelly chemicals as part of his artistic process, but he won the judges’ hearts again—especially Jeanne Greenberg, who called Miles’ piece “the most theatrical, yet also the most fragile.”
The surprise loser? Trong, who apparently had one of the most sterling art-world reps going into this competition, yet seemed completely out of place when asked to compete. I can’t fault the judges for booting him. Trong’s sculpture—which featured four TVs, facing each other, painted with dopey slogans like “I hate reality TV”—was ugly and obvious, and, in the words of Miles, “distractingly boring.” The all-around failure of this piece should serve as an instructive lesson. Bullshit is okay in explanations and critiques—just don’t put it into the art itself.
-Eric, last week’s big loser (in every way but the judges’ votes, that is), revealed that he suffered a head injury a few years back, which kicked his art obsession into overdrive. It also explains why his art is so often filled with gory imagery. This week, he made a sculpture of an accident victim, and it wasn’t much better than last week’s art-clown, really. But he didn’t get picked for the bottom, so he was safe. (The sculpture did provoke one of the night’s funniest lines though, when one of the gallery patrons puzzled out which parts of the body were represented by which piece of old junk, then said, “Oh, that’s the penis! Ooooh.”)
-Judith didn’t care for the criticism of Trong by the judges. I think that’s going to be more of a persistent problem on this show than it is on Project Runway or Top Chef. Artists tend to be all about supportive environments and positive feedback—at least at the amateur level.
-I though Jaclyn’s drowned TV was cool, but the noose was unnecessary. Literal overkill.
-I liked Abdi’s sculpture, which was a favorite of the critics as well. The oversized TV head on the tiny blank body reminded of an image from Heavy Metal. (Something by Vaughn Bode, maybe.) Then judge Bill Powers had to ruin it a little by calling the game-controller-umbilical-cord part of the sculpture the character’s “lifeline,” and calling the piece a comment on gaming culture. Sure, that is what Abdi had in mind. But the sculpture was more intriguing for how cool it looked than for any lame point it was making.
-John will be back with you next week. My thanks to him for letting me weigh in on a fascinating (if frustrating) show.