Season Premiere: Work of Art: The Next Great Artist – “Kitsch Me If You Can”

“Kitsch Me If You Can”

October 12th, 2011

As we drew closer to the season premiere of Bravo’s Work of Art, I began to get very nervous.

Last summer, I wrote a number of pieces that I think accurately capture my general obsession with this show, a complex and enormously flawed exercise that revealed things about the artifice of reality programming, the perils of reality editing, and the challenge of combining reality competition structure with something as purely subjective as fine art. However, while these difficulties may make it problematic within the fine art community, as a television critic I found Work of Art to be one of the most truly satisfying reality series I had ever seen. Each episode showed us something new about the artist, and their personal narratives were constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed numerous times over the course of the season. So whether I was writing about the show at large, or about two of its contestants (Miles Mendenhall and Jaclyn Santos), I had a lot to say.

Sadly, I will not have time to say as much this fall simply due to time constraints, but going into tonight’s premiere I wondered if I was going to have anything to say at all. For some reason I became profoundly worried as of late that the show wouldn’t be able to catch lightning in a bottle twice, especially since it didn’t seem like the show did so on purpose last time around. The tension that once sat at the center of the show could easily be diffused with a production staff now aware of the series’ flaws, and a set of contestants who fully understand what it is that the show is trying to accomplish.

While I have not seen beyond tonight’s premiere, I feel as though I can state with some authority that all has not been lost. “Kitsch Me If You Can” is an extremely strong opener, managing to introduce the artists while simultaneously focusing almost exclusively on their process rather than their personalities. Although “The Sucklord” may be larger than life, for the most part the cast seems to consist of artists with points of view who will be tested and tested again over the course of the competition.

And the results, at least in tonight’s finale, were pretty fantastic.

During the opening of the episode, as last season’s “self-portrait” introduction process (which I think is a great idea) is repeated, Bayete explains how his self-portrait, taken from his bio video, is him talking to himself about whether or not he should be on a reality show. It’s one of the only instances where the artifice of the competition is called into question, and the Sucklord (yes, that is actually a person) states the truth quite succinctly: the part of Bayete who was against being on a reality show clearly lost.

Last season, you could sense that no one quite knew what was going on, and so the show immediately dove into conflict between contestants (forced, in that instance, by the “Portraiture of a fellow contestant” challenge). Here, it seems like the show understands that it is those internal dialogues that hold the most value, and which will serve as the foundation for the season’s narratives. While interpersonal conflict can drive an individual episode’s drama, it cannot drive a season’s: for that, you need to be able to dive into each contestant’s process and start to understand what makes them tick.

While I have no doubt that the seasonal preview I avoided at the end of the episode featured plenty of interpersonal conflict, the real point of the show can be found in “Kitsch Me If You Can.” While I’m not entirely convinced that the show’s contestants are particularly strong this year, and some reruns from earlier today made me realize how much I liked that cast once you filtered it down to Nicole, Miles, Abdi, Peregrine and Jaclyn (not that the other contestants were awful, just less driven by narrative), the show seems to understand the best way to provide a window into their process. We’re given just enough autobiographical information to paint our own image, and then the rest of the work is largely done with their works of art rather than their interactions with other artists.

This is perhaps especially true with this challenge, as it is a variant on the Project Runway or Top Chef initial challenges which ask contestants to show the judges something of yourself within a certain framework. Here, the kitschy artwork serves as a starting point, and then the episode becomes about how each of them approaches this challenge, conceives of a vision, and executes that vision. There is no big twist to be found, nor is there really any drama within the challenge itself. It is each artist against themselves, a battle that many reality shows features but few are able to highlight with this much depth.

There were three elements within the episode that really stuck out to me in terms of focusing on each contestants’ point of view. The first was a new focus on time-lapse photography which allows us to see pieces of work (in this case the paintings from Jazz-Minh and Sara, as well as the sculptures from Tewz and Michelle) come to life. It’s a simple technique, but it does a lot to highlight some artists whose work might not be part of a crit (which goes for Jazz-Minh and Tewz) as well as to simply show the way that some complex ideas are constructed. While some processes are best explained over time (which I’ll get to in a moment), the time-lapse is an ideal way to include more detail on the actual production of these pieces.

For Lola, however, the show’s willingness to let process be a messy, unorganized thing is really part of its charm. It’s also something that works against conventions of reality television, in that normally Lola was being set up for an early exit: her completely inability to come up with a concept, and her disastrous position at the time of Simon’s visit, put her at a severe disadvantage. However, unlike when someone is “in the weeds” in Top Chef, the process doesn’t matter so long as the finished product comes together. And so there was Lola, standing alongside Michelle and Sara as the top three in the challenge, her deconstructed three-dimensional landscape turned into an even more deconstructed abstract three-dimensional landscape that had a great amount of detail and looked far more cohesive than it had any right to be given what we saw in the rest of the episode. Like Abdi last season, who was always pressed for time and often struggled, the end result is what is most important, and there’s something so strange about that which I continue to find compelling.

Ugo’s exit, meanwhile, offers a cautionary tale that is far more nuanced than we might normally give the show credit for. Now, let’s be frank: technically speaking, Slumlord probably had the least impressive piece of work, barely bothering to put any imagination into his clay rendering of Gandalf based on a velvet painting of Gandalf (or, realistically, a wizard with a sword: I doubt Gandalf was the only one). However, Ugo faced two problems that has nothing to do with effort or even “quality.” His work lacked any sense of point of view or personality, something that doesn’t necessarily attach itself to beauty or even whether or not something is “artistic,” and it was also identified by everyone under the sun as derivative of another artist’s work. These are subjective qualities that are very distinct within this series, which is why Ugo’s exit felt so descriptive of the show’s larger thesis. I also loved his insistence on removing the red background so that the judges could see what his piece would be like if he had edited it more carefully, both because it shows how simply details can fundamentally change a piece and because Jerry and China disagreed on whether it would have made a difference. There is not a great deal of science when it comes to Work of Art, and Ugo’s exit really captured that for me.

Now, in truth, we still don’t know a lot about many of these artists, so we’re not at the point where we can tell where the rest of the season is going. However, despite my concerns, this felt very much in line with what we saw last season, and in some ways it even seemed tailored towards the kind of narratives that worked so well last summer. It felt streamlined, perhaps, but not in a way that tried to turn the show into something it wasn’t, something driven wholly by interpersonal conflict.

It was allowed, instead, to remain a show about artists and their neuroses and the way in which their work and their becomes a reflection of who they are, who they want to be, and who they are in the context of a philosophically and artistically problematic reality series.

They might not quite be embracing the latter so much as they’re glossing over it, but it still made for a promising start to the season.

Cultural Observations

  • I thought Michelle was a deserved winner here: good story, compelling technique, and a bold use of the original object in a new context. It really transformed the piece without outright deconstructing it, without making it seem kitschy at the same time.
  • While I have some issues with Slumlord just on the basis of that moniker, and thought his piece was terrible, I like the idea of seeing him forced into different mediums and different aesthetics. There seem to be a number of artists with very limited styles (Ugo was one of them) in the competition this year, and that’s the kind of test that I’m intrigued by. Also, Simon got to say “Sucklord” a few times, which warmed my heart.
  • Interesting to see them announce the winner before they bother with the losers at all – it’s a smart choice, I think, as it results in less awkward editing when dealing with the winners/losers at episode’s end.
  • As noted, I likely won’t be stopping in on a weekly basis, but I highly recommend John Teti’s A.V. Club writeups for the show – I’ll likely be dropping in on the comments there, and might drop in with some thoughts on future episodes should any new narratives emerge.
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