‘Work of Art’ Recap, Episode 1

In which we are introduced to our esteemed judges and contestants; the grand prize, we learn, is $100,000, a Brooklyn Museum show

If you don’t already know the Bravo reality television show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, it’s because you a) don’t live in the real world, and so have never heretofore encountered reality, or b) hate joy and astounding things like art and executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker’s tiny torso, or c) don’t own a TV, because you’re one of those people. But FYI, the second season of Work of Art premiered Wednesday night, and if you’re ready to jump on in for round two of the self-referential, critical/gladiatorial brawl, I’m here to offer you a week-by-week primer on what transpired. Because, you know, sometimes reality television can be confusing without someone there to break it down for you.

Let me begin by explaining that since the dawn of civilization, great artists have been selected by a gaggle of intelligentsia, anointed with a special power to separate the wheat from the non-artistic chaff, the arty crème from the rest of the crème. One of these elect few is China Chow (OK, maybe the word intelligentsia is a bit of a stretch in this case). She’s our “host” on Work of Art, and claims to be a “jewelry designer” like everyone else without a real job. Also, as a child, she doodled with Jean-Michel Basquiat—“a family friend,” according to the Bravo website.

Then there’s Simon de Pury, chairman of the Phillips de Pury & Company auction house, who hails from some European land where people communicate with suave half-words and sweeping gestures of the bespoke-besuited arm. He’s the “mentor” of the 14 contestants that each year are chosen to tremble before the judgment of Ms. Chow, Mr. de Pury, bespectacled New York magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz, and Half Gallery co-owner Bill Powers, whose hair grows daily more vertiginous, the better to hide art secrets in. There used to be a lady gallerist named Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn up high on TV-art-judge Olympus, but she disappeared.

Anyway, each week the aforementioned trembling artists are handed down a challenge, which they must meet by hastily making mediocre art, in an attempt to keep the ireful judges from throwing them back to the other “real” art world—the one that exists on days other than Wednesdays and outside of the box that you can turn on and off. The winner at the end of the season receives a solo show at the “world famous” Brooklyn Museum (oh, you haven’t heard of it? It’s that big building near the library with all the parties!), a cover story in Blue Canvas magazine (don’t ask me), and $100,000 coughed up by the Fiat 500 (expect everyone on the show to drive Fiats, although if I had to hazard a guess, Mr. de Pury drives around his fiefdom in something more like a solid-gold chariot on his days off).

Episode one heralded the “bad art” challenge, in which the artists were presented with kitschy, thrift-store artwork, and told to make it better. Let me clarify: artists were told to do anything, anything at all, to improve upon crap. Some of them succeeded, sort of. But before I tell you who did OK, and whose stuffed head now hangs above Saltz’s hearth, here are the contestants:

This Iranian-American artist reveals right off the bat that she has a “dark interior,” and that she chose a creative career over dentistry, because if you’re a dentist, you can’t do awesome, arty things like be on a reality television show. (Truth be told, dentists are in fact the ones with the darkest of dark interiors and Bravo very well might be developing a Real Dentists of Toronto series as we speak—maybe she has time to reconsider her career path?) Kymia crafted a clay spaghetti monster cradling a tiny spaghetti monster as her first artwork. Saltz lavished it with praise, decreeing, “It’s “more than a tchotchke.”

“The name Sucklord comes from the suckiness, which is my self-deprecating misanthropic side, and then the lord, which is my megalomaniacal self-aggrandizing side—together in one word,” the Sucklord informs us in the first episode. He is known for making art from toy Stormtroopers, the ones from Star Wars—and not, you know, the Germans in the trenches of World War I. I’m guessing that since Mr. de Pury already owns some of the Sucklord’s art, he can’t get kicked off for a while, lest the value of said art should depreciate. He made a really horrible Sculpey Gandalf figurine for the first challenge. At least the moniker is apt.

Dusty’s a hick with a mullet (or a mullet in the back, plus hair that’s kind of receding in the front), but it’s hard to enjoy making fun of him because he’s from Arkansas and teaches art in a public elementary school. Also, he just had a baby. In addition, during the episode they show footage from his hometown, and it looks just like those creepy videos Charles Manson made of all the kids in the Family taking acid. So maybe Mitchell deserves a break. Even though he created a so-so, Technicolor self-portrait-as-clown for the “bad art” challenge.

Ugo is French. When he speaks with Mr. de Pury, their accents meld into a super-accent. He rips off Keith Haring constantly (and consistently!), which everyone repeatedly tells him is a bad idea, but maybe he doesn’t understand what they’re saying. Because he’s French? He’s clearly supposed to be the hunky eye candy on the show, but on the sexiness scale, he’s no sleepy-eyed Miles—season one shout out! In response to the first challenge, Ugo constructs a red Keith Haring-esque thing. Surprise!

“Leon has been profoundly and proudly deaf since birth,” Bravo declares on its website. I am profoundly not sure what that means, but talk about taking all the fun out of mocking someone. So instead, I’ll talk about Bill, Leon’s interpreter. Bill sounds just like an aging musical theater producer, kind of lisping and flippant and New Yawk all at once—basically he does not sound like a 31-year-old Malaysian dude. But back to Leon, who made some kind of spooky black-and-white mirror with a paper wreath on it in response to the inaugural challenge, and made it in order to elevate the status of all deaf artists in Malaysia, a minority Bravo viewers had probably not given much thought to previously. So, there, haters.

Kathryn has an MFA in photography from Yale, meaning that she’s already survived years of scathing censure, so she should be safely desensitized to meanies. But if she’s not, the totally gross photos she makes of things that look like bloody guts (and yeah, sometimes genitalia) will certainly eventually earn her some acerbic critiques.

Sarah’s… perky. She’s an installation artist and a professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art. For this episode, she cut a porcelain cat into slivers for the challenge and tacked them to the wall. People love cats. I mean, cat people do. So she’s got that.

Most notably, Michelle and her boyfriend were recently the victims of a hit-and-run accident. Drama! “Since the accident, I’m always thinking about death,” she reveals in her hiply nerdy monotone. For the first challenge, she displayed a clay totem pole in front of a painting of clouds, toward all of which a paper skeleton crawls. It was very Oliver Stone’s The Doors. Michelle confides before the crit, “I haven’t been this nervous since I got tested for STDS.” Not even when you got mowed down by a car, Ms. Matson?

Here’s the graffiti artist. He boasts that he’s gotten caught and locked up in Chicago for his street-art shenanigans. He proclaims that, “Art on the street and art in the gallery is really emerging together,” unlike the subject and verb pairing in that sentence. He’s shocked when he enters the studio in which the artists do their art-making. Poor guy’s used to abandoned warehouses and, like, jail. In response to the challenge, he cobbles together a horrifying frog that lights up and looks a little like a homemade bomb, much to Powers’ light-up-frog-loving delight.

Having battled with bulimia in high school (relevant, how?) she now makes art that she thinks is about “womanhood.” More importantly, she is the second Sara—albeit without an “h”—on this show currently. This insanity must end! Either she or Sarah must change her name to something else, like Sucklady, or maybe Threez. I decree it. This Sara painted a woman who looks kind of like her (read: has freckles) roasting on a spit.

Smith is the black artist. The only one on the show, therefore the only one who could possibly be a great artist. In the season premiere, he produces an artwork that is, as he put it, about “cultural hybridity and commodification of beauty.” It’s the faces of two ladies—one black, one white—surrounded by money, the whole shebang behind bars. Oy, Bravo, there are female artists out there not making self-portraits about their weight issues (“womanhood”?) and black artists not making work about race that’s so facile. Come on!

With a first name like that, how could she not have grown up on a hippie commune. Her claim to fame is that she paints fast—a real boon in this context—which she proceeds to do in the first episode, cranking out a bad picture of Lola with a cartoon bird. There’s a Maya Angelou reference in its title, if you care to gag a little.

Lola is the 24-year-old nymphette, or in Moore’s words, the “sprightly sexpot” of the show. The Sucklord is already totally trying to get in her high-waisted shorts. She claims her mom was a “gypsy” moving around a lot, but her mom—as seen in a photo that flashes onscreen—looks mostly like Courtney Love. (Maybe a gypsy is preferable?) Ms. Thompson’s piece turns out well, against all odds: it’s a kind of deconstructed painting of a cottage in the mountains, with the cottage, mountains and setting all isolated from one another. The lonely Courtney Love cottage makes everyone sad.

Supposedly Young Sun Han was the top-dog of the art world in… New Zealand, back when he was making photographs of himself naked and soaking wet in front of his terminally ill parents. Ick. “Instead of having brothers and sisters to play with I had my imagination,” he says of his artistic beginnings. For the first challenge, he imagined a performative installation of dogs playing poker. It’s titled The Things We Said When We Had Too Much To Drink, which I think would make a great alternate title for just about any Bravo reality television show.

Finally. If you’re still watching, you can now watch (read) what happens. Our intelligentsia and photographer Mary Ellen Mark (guest judge, dressed like she’s wearing a Willie Nelson Halloween costume… timely, but still scary) select Sara J., Michelle, and Lola as the top three contenders, and Bayeté, Ugo, and the Sucklord as the bottom three. Michelle wins and is “super duper” excited. Bayeté and Mr. Saltz get in a fight about pushing buttons (both in favor, depending on the button, and frequency of pushing). According to Mr. Saltz, the Sucklord’s piece “is not art.” Ugo is told by everyone, even Ms. Chow, that he ripped off Keith Haring. Ugo proceeds to look sad, and China Chow looks lustfully after Ugo as he leaves. Because, yes, Ugo has been eliminated. And no one even said, “Ugo, you go!” They must not be as drunk as I thought.

Check back on Wednesday for a print feature on what this week’s episode would have taught us about art and the art world, if Bravo was our only access to those things. We’ll be back here next week, following episode two, recapping the action.

‘Work of Art’ Recap, Episode 1