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Jerry Saltz’s Work of Art Recap: Public Shaming

My reality-TV show has me freaked out. Not because people in the art world keep pulling me aside at openings and earnestly whispering, “Jerry, please stop.” I’m fine with that. What shook me was all the psycho-drama, anxiety, and pain I glimpsed boiling to the surface on this week’s episode. I kept thinking about how too much self-knowledge can sometimes be a bad thing; that reality TV sometimes pulls the curtains back a little too far on certain personalities. As Goethe said, “If I knew myself, I’d run away.” This week’s Work of Art made me want to run away. Still, I was riveted, identifying with the troubles I saw.

The challenge was to create a piece of public sculpture for an outdoor space (at Canal Street and Sixth Avenue in lower Manhattan). Never mind that 90 percent of all public sculpture is bad because it’s chosen by committees and bureaucrats, that no one even knows what public art should do anymore. The vast majority of outdoor sculpture is geometric, corporate-looking work or silly, figurative plop-art. The diabolical minds at Bravo, however, made this hard task harder by having the eight artists split into two four-person teams. Anyone who has spent time in the art world can tell you having artists work together on one piece of art is notoriously difficult. It goes against most artists’ natures.

Teams were formed by having artists pick different colored paint tubes from a box. (Bravo, couldn’t we just have had the artists pick colored cards or something?) The Red Team was Abdi, Mark, Ryan, and Nicole — who turns out to have a real feel for form, materials, surface, scale, and getting people to pull together. Ryan was a total team player, although his inept skill set made me fear he was going to saw his thumb off. Mark was nervous about the group’s plan, but he wasn’t undermining. Abdi went along with everything, although he got a bit carried away saying that standing on the group’s multisided shape-thing made him feel “a little like Jesus for a minute.” (I know my generation blathered about Buddhism, but I wish Abdi would ratchet back the Christian references.) The ways this team cooperated proved that artists can work well together when they submerge their fears and egos into the work. Because they understood that no matter what they made it would be flawed, but they were able to work with flaws as they arose and show good art is often created by using the unexpected things that come up along the way.

From the "Kumbaya" of the Red Team we turn to the Dostoevsky darkness of the Blue Team. The brooding Erik was teamed with Miles, whom the week before he called “manipulative,” and Jaclyn, whom he’d lambasted for not telling the judges that one of the ideas she used in a piece had been his. Erik complained that the others were shooting his ideas down and “discouraging” him. Miles disagreed: “This is about four people working for a common aesthetic.” Peregrine and Jaclyn tried to diffuse the tension, but all was for naught. Erik said he felt like a “leper,” calling the raised curved shape the group came up with “art school crap.” Maybe it was “art school,” but it actually wasn’t crap. In fact, theirs was the piece I was most attracted to, enjoyed using, experiencing, and sitting in. It didn’t matter that they later admitted that they hadn’t been aware that the patch of sky that their shelter looked directly at was empty because it had once been occupied by the World Trade Center (the other team was unaware of this too). Their piece was still poignant — my winner, for sure.

Read our exit interview with Erik here.

After the Red Group was told they’d won, they all agreed Nicole was the leader. (She remarked, “I know I’m a girl, but we were a real band of bros.”) I’m really looking forward to seeing more of her work; she’s a real dark horse.

Things with the Blue Team, though, only deteriorated. Viewers didn’t see it, but after Erik was told good-bye, China asked if there was anything he’d like to say to the judges. He looked up, scowled, shook his head as if we were vermin, and stalked off. It was a little scary. (I actually asked Bravo if they had done psychological screening of the artists beforehand.) A minute later we saw Erik in the studio saying good-bye to the other artists. After he hugged Abdi and Ryan, Peregrine sweetly said, “I look forward to seeing you again.” He replied, “I wish I could say the same.” Wow! That hardness turned misguided when he said that “being sent home ends my last ditch effort at art.” Actually, Erik, being kicked off a reality show may do more to confirm you as an artist.

The part that freaked me out wasn’t what Erik did. It was that, deep down inside, I knew that if I were in his position — deprived of sleep, thrown together with thirteen strangers, tasked to make strange things in no time, and filmed eighteen hours a day — that not only would I be sent home, but I’d snap. I’m not sure how I’m doing on my side of the camera, but I know I couldn’t cut it on the other one. I recently got a nice e-mail from Erik and look forward to seeing him again someday. I suspect, however, that his “art pussy” comment will haunt him in the art world. Maybe he should make like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and publicly confess. Go to MoMA; shout into the Yoko Ono microphone now in the atrium, “I am an art pussy.” Maybe he should have Nao and Judith spelling the words “PROUD PUSSY” backward in brown liquid. Jamie-Lynn could sweetly dance, and Trong could tell people who Tom Freidman is. John and Amanda could turn it all into an abstract book cover.

Read our exit interview with Erik here.

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo