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Jerry Saltz’s Work of Art Recap: Awkward

I did a fair amount of cringing before, during, and after this week’s episode. As I watched myself in a drab shirt and no sports coat, spotting flab, I thought, This reality-TV show is making me look fat. My discomfort bubbled up again when I heard that this week’s artist challenge was to “create a piece of shock art.” The challenge was fine, but this kind of art is usually ingratiating, desperate, simplistic, silly, exploitative, needy, or all the above. Not to mention often filled with blood, guts, sex, and semen. And sure enough, Nao and Ryan worked in pretty much all of these things. For real shock, one should go to Goya, an all-white painting by Robert Ryman, a pale grid by Agnes Martin, or an eight-hour Andy Warhol film of someone sleeping.

I also squirmed when I heard photographer Andreas Serrano would be the guest judge. Well-known for his vivid, large-scale pictures of Ku Klux Klansmen, people having sex, and dead babies (plus blood, guts, and semen), Serrano helped ignite the culture wars in the eighties with Piss Christ, an image of a plastic crucifix submerged in urine. More shocking to me than seeing Piss Christ at the beginning of the show was seeing that Abdi apparently had no idea what Piss Christ was — or who Serrano was, either. This is inexcusable for someone who graduated art school. But the real reason I squirmed was because I once wrote that Serrano’s color pictures of excrement were “crap.”

When we met, the photographer smiled wryly and said, “I bet you didn’t want to work with me.” Overcoming my fear that he was going to hit me, I said, “I thought the same thing about you.” We laughed and shook hands. He couldn’t have been more gracious. I liked him immediately. In addition to being an arch, witty, insightful judge, he exuded sex appeal. At one point I thought that he and our glamorous host China Chow were flirting. After I heard her say to Serrano, “He has an awfully long penis,” I said something to them. They both looked blankly at me like I was an alien from the Sexless Planet. So this is how sexy people live, I thought.

Then the real discomfort-fest began. After hearing Serrano say that all artists think, “I have the best shit in town,” Simon de Pury punned, “I hope to see some good shit.” The next thing I knew, Abdi was fashioning small heads that looked almost exactly like the work of Thomas Schutte. Needless to say, he was clueless about the connection. Miles concocted an idiotic story about how his first erection came while watching The Little Mermaid and asking his mother, “What’s happening to me?” Right, Miles. After making a drawing that looked exactly like something by Sue Williams, he managed to make it worse by then ejaculating on it (although I loved the shot of him drying the semen with a hair-blower). When Simon heard Miles’s story, he quipped — and this could live in art-world infamy — “I got my first erection to a Renoir.” Ha! Ryan, who also has a wonderful way with words, described his pulp-fiction self-portrait as “a picture of myself as this post-coital, post-bondage, post cum-shot trannie with really bad makeup, an electrical cord around my neck, and a pink wig.” I really got uncomfortable when Jaclyn was seen blurred-out, but obviously topless in the bathroom taking pictures of herself. It was good that she was willing to be that vulnerable for her art; I just felt bad for her that we all were seeing it. When Simon looked at these pictures he gushed, “You’re gorgeous to look at, a rush of blood to look at.”

John sweetly said that he had a friend who practiced self-fellatio and was “ruined by it and turned antisocial.” Mark sighed, “If we could do that none of us would leave the house.” John made a lovely black-and-white drawing inspired by this. If he hangs that up, I thought, he’s the winner for the second-straight week. But then he blundered by cutting it out, pasting it on a flat-blue canvas, and writing silly slogans all around the drawing, misspelling the word “fellatio” in the process. The whole thing died. Mark then described Nicole’s interesting skin and blood collection as “amateurish and schlocky.” Of course, it was his pictures of panties, meant to signify “sexual abuse of children,” that were actually amateurish and schlocky. Nao, meanwhile, was just making a mess — although my favorite shot in the show was of her walking around the artists’ apartment with a black plastic bag on her head. Also wonderful: Peregrine parading around all episode in this black-and-silver elf-pixie number with pointy ears. It was like a runaway Project Runway.

Abdi’s black men as bong heads made him a finalist. As much as I thought that these pieces would be nothing more than typical superhero heads, they had a lot of magic and presence, especially as he smartly chose to display them on the floor — it really threw off the scale of the little things and pulled you into their oddball visual dimension. Then there were Jaclyn’s pictures of herself with graffiti that had been written onto her body by gallerygoers — some of it referring to her “fake breasts.” Judging from blogs and comments, Jaclyn is widely disliked, ridiculed as “booby girl.” Still, I thought this piece deserved to be in the finalist’s circle, because it showed her looking at us looking at her looking at us, setting up a charged feedback loop of sexuality, strangeness, and self-consciousness. I think the two right people were chosen.

Same goes for the two people who were eliminated — although I’m sad to see them leave. John had really grown on me over the weeks, and his drawing began so promisingly, I was sure he would be safe. And Nao — whose final performance was essentially her sitting on a stool as she smeared herself with something — was a true character. It’s funny: When I write negative reviews I rarely feel bad about them afterward. But on Work of Art, I get to know the artists a teeny bit in the critiques and then see their reactions when they’re sent home. I always cringe a bit at this moment. Maybe Serrano did, too, because at the very end of this episode he said a very generous thing to Nao: “I tried to save you, Nao; sometimes we artists are misunderstood."

Related: Work of Art Exit Interview: John
Work of Art Exit Interview: Nao

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo