My interest in Bravo’s reality show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, which just wrapped its second season recently, should be obvious—more obvious than why I might turn my nose up at it. I’m an art writer, so like to notice how iterations of criticism make their way into the mainstream. Reality television has always held my attention in this respect; in the mid-’00s I used to go on about the vilification of Simon Cowell’s frankness on American Idol, which, for me, typified the kind of hypersensitivity and victimology that surrounded contemporary art practice and consumption.
Of course, the idea of a reality show predicated not just on the discovery of a supposedly great artist, but on the weeding out of lesser candidates, appealed: because criticism would have to come into play, and criticism—of the accessibly non-partisan sort, i.e., non-academic, non-curatorial—has such an insignificant impact on the art market and on artists’ successes nowadays. That Jerry Saltz had signed on seemed propitious. Would the show, in some small way, bring art criticism back?
A more cynical hope was that Work of Art, in its likely failure to be anything more to thinking people than an insipid diversion, would become, Project Runway– and Top Model–style, a mirror for its real-world analogue, itself so often an insipid diversion. Sure enough, this came to be—strengthened, in definitive reality-TV-show style, by Work of Art’s ridiculously unselfconscious gravitas. (Artists who win challenges are told they have “made a true work of art”; artists who don’t are told, “the only rule in art is what works, and none of your pieces did.”)
Season Two’s winner was Kymia Nawabi, and she was not the favourite. That was the runner-up, Young Sun Han, a determined, hardworking artist who won challenge after challenge, but whose work was, as Saltz rightly pointed out, too tidy: meaning that it was pandering and lacked depth. (Despite Saltz’s admonition, two of Han’s winning pieces were on the flogged topics of Prop 8 and Ai Weiwei’s disappearance, respectively.)
Nawabi was squirrelly throughout. Physiognomically, she reminded me of a less languid Cher. I cannot, offhand, remember her efforts from initial episodes; she persevered by being inoffensive. I liked her, mostly. Episode four marked her first win, and her piece, prompted by a challenge to respond to a child’s artwork, was a straightforward but beautiful magical-realist drawing. Subsequently, the neurotic Nawabi—who did not get along well with the gleefully catty Lola Thompson (who, along with one Sucklord, was pretty much the only dynamic character on deck)—struggled to be more than a draughtsperson. In her mind, simply having “impeccable” technique, as host/judge China Chow put it in that fourth episode, was not enough.
Actually, it wasn’t. Han was repeatedly praised for making work that was reductively interactive—the Prop 8 piece, victorious on episode three, was meant to be written on; so was his winning piece for episode six, a wall mural and collaboration with fellow contestant Dusty Mitchell. Nawabi tried this stunt on episode eight, and failed: she sold her signatures to people on the street who, in turn, gave her theirs, and then presented them in a minimalist grid. It wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t any better than the other interactive art that was produced during the season. The artists’ difficulty in using their imaginations to touch the judges seemed to force them to literalize the art experience, a tactic on display, recently, at the New Museum’s risible Carsten Höller exhibition.
Nawabi’s final, winning exhibition was, fittingly and rightly, drawings, but they were not left alone. Dealing with notions of the afterlife, the drawings, Nawabi ineptly decided, needed an installation component, so she threw some dirt in some white troughs to represent… death? Again, her second-guessing seemed the result of a complex built up from the season’s crits. Over and over, the judges, Saltz included, praised the artists for experimenting with “materials.” A great contemporary artist does not, apparently, confine her or himself to one thing. Mastery of, and dedication to, medium is monotony; installation is the name of the game.
This attention-deficit ethos was reflected in episode-to-episode challenges, which, instead of allowing individual artists with strong technical leanings to flourish, encouraged medium and genre bouncing. Pop art, street art, industrial sculpture: you had to be able to do it all. Michelle Matson, a focused paper-sculptor who works for painter Marilyn Minter, mastered initial challenges and seemed a shoo-in for the win. Yet, despite her cool, Chelsea-ready persona, she was kicked off the show after she failed a challenge for which she had to incorporate Fiat car parts. She essentially gave up: her absurd aberration of a piece attached googly eyes to fenders. Are the writers of Work of Art implying that artists must be able to bend to clients’, dealers’ and corporations’ whims, regardless of training? It’s a bit of an overstatement, really: no art star is stretched in the way these artists were; in fact, the show downplays the importance of branding—style, by another name—to an artist’s success.
Still, Work of Art’s aspirants are both metonyms and harbingers. The three finalists were each given space in “mentor” Simon de Pury’s large auction house for an exhibition. All of them made works with varying degrees of spectacle, and all dwelt on themes that betrayed a distinct lack of depth. Han and Nawabi both made art about the deaths of their fathers; Nawabi, the rightful victor, made her experience of death adequately abstract and conceptual, while Han just told us that his father’s death was, like, super sad. This solipsism seemed to plague all contestants. Mitchell, filling the role of working-class bloke, was constantly thinking about his kid and wife, making a lot of really bad art about family and “play.” On episode four, the third finalist, Sara Jimenez, made a weak triptych of paintings about her parents’ divorce, breaking down in front of executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker when asked to explain it. Speaking of which, the biggest breakdown happened on episode two, when Kathryn Parker Almanas vomit-cried because she couldn’t justify her scatty nouveau-ab-ex work which, she claimed, stemmed from her experiences with IBS.
Saltz told Han in the final crit that he didn’t “leave [enough of] a gap for mystery.” It wasn’t the first time he said something like this, chiding contestants for their facile view of theme (however solipsistic), which seemed limited to “death,” “innocence” and “sex.” On a reality show, such calls for complexity are like a gust of wind in a fetid hole. The converse criticism of the contestants who didn’t have a clue what they were doing means the show is not a bad object lesson in creativity for amateurs: don’t use shortcut ideas, but also don’t start something without a plan or purpose. And yet, Saltz’s criticism of Han seemed feckless next to Chow’s effusive tears, brought on because she, too, had experienced the loss of a parent. Indeed, Saltz was not calling on Han for a better idea; he was asking him to make it look more complex. Nawabi, the delicate draftsperson, deserved her win, but it will be Han, the showman—er, the Jennifer Hudson of this season?—whose name we will most certainly hear again.