Work of Art.

From the opening credits of Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, Season Two

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.

Work of Art host/judge China Chow.

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.

A detail of Kymia Nawabi's work.

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.

Michelle Matson's losing work.

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.

Kathryn Parker Almanas.

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.

Minnelli.

Vincente and Liza Minnelli on the set of A Matter of Time. Courtesy AltScreen.

I’ve been in New York for a month now. Read about my experiences viewing visual art here or here or here. Right now, I’d prefer to write about a master director who also concerns himself with viewing art, but also, ultimately, with becoming art, with living art. I’d prefer to write about Minnelli.

The BAMCinématek—housed in Herts and Tallant’s gorgeous, boxy, beaux-arts Brooklyn Academy of Music building on Lafayette Avenue—has become a second home to me during my stay. They’re hosting a complete retrospective of Minnelli: emphasis on complete, since about half of Minnelli, one of Old Hollywood’s most famous directors of musicals and melodramas (and ex-husband of Judy Garland, father of Liza), is available to see everywhere, putting a long shadow over the other half that remains unheralded and untended to.

Minnelli’s genius is endlessly fascinating and inspiring. He is one of the great artists of the twentieth century. Many focus on his closeted homosexuality: a recent study by Mark Griffin is entitled A Hundred or More Hidden Things. That title, admittedly, has a dual meaning (which I’ll get to later), but it must be said that the theme of appearance versus reality—an eminent theme of Shakespeare, one of Minnelli’s forebears—is unmistakably attached to gender and sexuality in his films.

Autographed production still of John Kerr as Steven W. Holte in The Cobweb.

His treatment of male characters can be revealing in this respect. Tom in Tea and Sympathy (excellently played by John Kerr, who also appears in Minnelli’s best melodrama, The Cobweb) is teased for being effeminate, but turns out not to be gay. (Deborah Kerr’s Laura Reynolds makes sure of this.) Ditto for Jack Cole’s choreographer in Designing Woman, who, in one scene, displays an accordion of family wallet-pictures to prove his virility to Gregory Peck’s Mike Hagen. (In real life, Cole was indeed gay; he choreographed one of the gayest sequences in Hollywood history, Gentleman Prefer Blondes‘ “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?“)

Minnelli’s gayness is best expressed by his female characters. Admittedly, this is often a reductive statement pegged to gay-male artists, but in Minnelli’s case it’s true. The way his women desire—the way they dream—seems his personal ideal. Minnelli’s cinema does indeed have male dreamers, but they tend to be terrifyingly rapacious: Gene Kelly’s megalomaniacal colonialist Jerry Muligan in an An American in Paris; Kirk Douglas’ ridiculously ambitious film-industry personalities in The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, and his laughable Van Gogh in Lust for Life.  They seem to combust before they begin.

DVD still of Judy Garland as Manuela Alva in The Pirate.

Minnelli’s women connive, but they are gentler misfits. I think primarily of six of them: Yolanda Acquaviva (Lucille Bremer) in Yolanda and the Thief; Manuela Alva (Judy Garland) in The Pirate; Gigi (Leslie Caron) in Gigi; Daisy Gamble (Barbra Streisand) in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever; and the Countess Sanziani (Ingrid Bergman) and Nina (Liza Minnelli) in A Matter of Time. That three, if not four or five, of these actresses are gay icons might tell you something. But that’s just scraping the surface.

A thorough examination of all of these women would comprise a book. I want to focus briefly on what’s freshest in my mind: A Matter of Time, Minnelli’s last film from 1976. BAMCinématek’s screening of it was rare, including a seldom-seen deleted sequence. The print was imported from Locarno, Switzerland, whose film festival is doing saintly work in cinema-history advocacy. Minnelli disowned A Matter of Time, which may show evidence of his onset senility and definitely suffered at the brutish populist hands of producer Samuel Z. Arkoff. (Much of this sad story can be found here.)

A Matter of Time and On A Clear Day
Posters for On A Clear Day You Can See Forever and A Matter of Time in BAMCinématek's lobby.

Still, the film mesmerizes. Minnelli scholar Joe McElhaney described it in his post-screening Q&A as “a ruin”—in the best, Romanesque sort of way. Ingrid Bergman is Minnelli’s last star, and she is magisterial playing a down-at-heel countess who retreats into the fantasy life of her glamourous past. As she languishes in raccoon eye-makeup and long capes at a fleabag Roman hotel, Liza Minnelli’s Nina, a chambermaid from the countryside, tends to and becomes fixated on her. (Compare the film’s conceit with that of Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. and it becomes perhaps the closest Minnelli ever got to Italian Neorealism, although that’s not saying much.)

What emerges, flaws and all, is a definitive last work. It is a running joke among Minnelli-ites that his autobiography, entitled I Remember It Well, is, ironically, full of mendacity. But there is much to value in it, including what he says midway through about the responsibility of a director to be a fighter. (This is in light of his and Arthur Freed’s push to include the ballet at the end of An American in Paris, one of the most sublime moments in American cinema.) Fighting for one’s art, for one’s vision, comes in many forms and may often be Pyrrhic—witness the compromise of A Matter of Time—but, implies Minnelli, once done, it leaves vital traces.

Production still of Ingrid Bergman as the Countess Sanziani in A Matter of Time. Courtesy AltScreen.

Unquestionably romantic, this view of creative gain and loss is expressed repeatedly by Bergman’s countess in A Matter of Time through the lines, “No one dies unless we wish them to.” This is as dark as it is hopeful. One still feels everywhere in Minnelli a fear of the annihilation of the ego. There is a fear of what art strives to hide (vulgarity, mortality), its more grandiose and forced efforts to do this, epitomized by Minnelli’s lavish style, both radically denying and reinforcing this fear.

Art may be enfeebled by lack of care, but it is also by nature delicate. Still, watching the transcendent scenes in A Matter of Time—a single mascara tear slowly trickling down Bergman’s face as if commanded by a magic wand; Liza, in a fantasy sequence, gliding through a streamer-strewn ballroom after a party—one is kept aware of its ghostly power.

Wieland/Trudeau.

Joyce Wieland, Reason over Passion/La Raison avant la passion (1968/1967-69)

The new Fall issue of Canadian Art magazine has just hit newsstands, and it contains Sara Angel’s engaging account of Joyce Wieland’s unprecedented “True Patriot Love” exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in 1971. For an online supplement, we’ve posted a series of fascinating photographs from the opening, which remind us, among other things, of curator Dennis Reid’s hotness and that the National Gallery, until quite recently, used to be housed in a dour office building.

My own supplement, posted here exclusively for you, is this account from page 240 of one of my favourite Canadian books, Margaret Trudeau’s 1979 autobiography Beyond Reason, in which, as the title indicates, she narrates her infamous encounter with one of Wieland’s best-known works:

“One day I did what in Pierre’s eyes was the unforgivable. We were having a frosty argument about clothes, and suddenly I flew into the most frenzied temper. I tore off up the stairs to the landing where a Canadian quilt, designed by Joyce Weyland [sic] and lovingly embroidered in a New York loft with Pierre’s motto, ‘La raison avant la passion,’ was hanging. (Its bilingual pair was in the National Gallery.) Shaking with rage at my inability to counter his logical, reasoned arguments, I grabbed at the quilt, wrenched off the letters and hurled them down the stairs at him one by one, in an insane desire to reverse the process, to put passion before reason just this once. Pierre was icy. Vandalizing a work of art; how low could I sink? (Hildegard sewed them all on again, invisibly and without comment, the next morning.). All of it seemed beyond reason to me.”

You Are Here.

A scene from You Are Here.

I interviewed artist-filmmaker Daniel Cockburn for Canadian Art‘s website this week, about his new film You Are Here. He spoke to me in his car on the way back to Toronto from New York, where he and his wife Brenda Goldstein are moving. The title of his film lent a humourous air to our talk when he and Goldstein realized, after meandering through a large parking lot full of semi-trailer trucks, that they were actually still in the U.S., and not in Canada. Another titular echo came near the end of our talk, when Cockburn mentioned to me that he wanted to go back to making shorter work now, after his feature had been released: “I hate the idea that one should make shorts and then once one has made a feature, keep making features and never look back. That may have been the dream, but that was by no means the only goal.”

He cited, as a guide in this respect, Miranda July (whose previous feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know boasted, like You Are Here, the charisma of late performer Tracey Wright). As a short-story writer who is currently working on a novel, but who is still enamored of short narratives, I was happy to hear Cockburn’s comments. Today, artists are so often told that short work is only an entrée to bigger things that can be packaged and marketed more viably. This is an old sentiment, of course: we live in a time rife with the tidbit-sized and the ephemeral, that is often heedless of, or, rather, still relatively clueless about, how to make anything out of its long-term value. As Cockburn mentioned in his interview, however, the model of making shorter work lies at the foundation of the longer. At the moment, I’m finding preparatory novel-work very similar to short-story-collection writing, as I parse narrative events into sections and episodes. Before I obtain enough money and time to work with sustained effort on the project and to see its broader strokes/overtones, it’s the only way to keep vigilant of where I am.

Caravaggio and General Idea.

Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac (1603)

At the opening of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s “General Idea: Haute Culture” exhibition on Friday, I found myself in a brief discussion with the museum’s Assistant Curator of European Art, Sasha Suda, regarding the National Gallery of Canada’s new Caravaggio exhibition, about which I had just written for Canadian Art‘s website. “I broke into tears in front of [the second] Sacrifice of Isaac,” she said. Tears for art? Now there’s something I can get behind. (When I visited the NGC, it was the artist’s very different and less celebrated first Sacrifice of Isaac, with its starkness and queerness, that elicited a similar reaction in me). “You don’t cry at the Uffizi,” Suda said, referring to the famous museum in Florence where the second Sacrifice, along with other Caravaggios and Renaissance masterpieces, are housed. “But at the NGC, you do.” The work is more alone, she explained; you’re not spoiled for choice.

This is the sort of work for which I have an admitted preference: work that is stubbornly independent; that believes in belief; that gets its power in isolation; that wants to be greeted and discoursed with, but also to be supreme, demanding space, quiet, contemplation, rapture, worship, fetishization—above all, work that works tirelessly at achieving such effects.

Opening of "General Idea: Haute Culture" at the Art Gallery of Ontario, July 29, 2011.

A different feeling, of course, emerged at the General Idea show. No one work is necessarily supreme. The trio’s project began in 1969 and was put to an end (a resolute one, due to Jorge Zontal’s and Felix Partz’s AIDS-related deaths) in 1994. So much is deliberately circumstantial and ephemeral. It was precisely for this reason that I looked forward to seeing “Haute Culture”: finally, after years of trying to understand a varied, conceptually dense practice through random encounters with its elements, I was given a large part of the whole thing. The confounding nature of the work, especially of the early stuff, is purposeful and petulant. This is art that becomes art through its own confident proclamation as art. (What else could you do in 1970s Toronto?) It is all gesture, context. “Form is fiction,” goes a well-known General Idea dictum. (Someone tell me: is the collective’s name a reference to Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Platonic notion of the “general idea” in portrait painting?)

General Idea, AIDS (installation view) (1988)

What seems to emerge despite this, and despite Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris’ Frédéric Bonnet’s decision to organize the show achronologically (an approach that AA Bronson himself, as he told us in his opening remarks, initially saw as counter-intuitive), is a powerful narrative about queer aesthetics, which, especially in the 20th-century, are defined by polarities of, on one side, extreme frivolity and, on the other, radical social meditation/transformation. It is the advent of AIDS which, as it did elsewhere, raises the stakes of General Idea’s work: and by this I mean that the group managed to incorporate it into their existing practice so well, so brilliantly, that it seems, eerily, as if it had been anticipated all along. “Haute Culture” is full of presence: faux-archeaological digs of Mesopotamian-esque objects bearing the likenesses of poodles; a Day-Glo armory; multiple installations in which AZT and other antiretroviral drugs are made into sleek Pop Art. But if one cries, or laughs, it is not for an individual object, but for the project and its having been lived through, and grappled with. It is for the general idea.