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Jerry Saltz’s Work of Art Recap: The Loneliest Number

Given the weird ways this show turns me around inside, it’s fitting this week — with the challenge being two-person teams making art about pairs of universal opposites — that I had a batch of singular personal insights, none that pleasant. The worst came while shooting the sequence where we judges sit on stools and talk about each artist. I carried on about how irked I was at Abdi’s ordered painting about what he called “the chaos of Socrates’ Cave” (no one bothered to tell him it’s Plato). I then groused about Mark’s portrayal of heaven as light and sky being too literal. At that point the crew chief, in contact with the control room, called out “cut.” He approached me and mumbled something about “body contours.” He asked, “Do you know the expression ‘hanging brains?’” When I said that I didn’t, he whispered, “You need to stand up and, um, re-arrange yourself.” I looked at my lap and shrieked! A huge roar of laughter came from behind the doors of the control room. Whatever they’d been looking at, I was mortified.

More than that was visible: The wear and tear on the artists was evident. They were all punchy, on the edge of a funk. With Ryan gone (who in his exit interviews kept referring to how he likes to drink: I’m a wee worried, Ryan), Mark moved in with Abdi and Miles — who then shunned Mark. “I feel for Mark because he’s ostracized by the others,” Abdi said. I noticed that this week, too. On the judges’ side, with Jeanne gone for the second week in a row, we again missed her alert eye. The only one of the judges not getting a fair shake in the editing is Jeanne, who is always perceptive and fast with snappy answers. But this week Bill really stepped up, calling out artists when it was time and praising them appropriately. I’m afraid I was all over the place, once resorting to John Madden–like NFL jargon to describe the juxtaposition of two pieces as, “blam, boom — there they are!” I also issued this plaintive lament: “Men and women, we’re in divergent universes; we can’t cross this cosmic psychic divide!” Damn you, “hanging brains”!

With concepts as vast as heaven and hell, order and chaos, male and female, the artists paradoxically started revealing themselves more. In one case, a lot more. For weeks, viewers have complained that Miles is “playing the judges.” I never noticed this in person — until this week. Just after guest judge Ryan McGinley McGinness was introduced, Miles lurched forward and cooed, “I adore your black-light installations, man.” I immediately realized that if he was ingratiating himself to McGinness, he was probably doing this with us all along. Look very closely at this scene and you’ll see me grimacing and turning away in total disgust.

On to the teams. Paired with Jaclyn, Miles said they should make a piece about “a man losing control and a woman gaining control.” Jaclyn asked, “How can I show the concept of a woman in control?” He quickly replied, “By making a painting of you masturbating.” I assume Jaclyn had actually thought of the idea herself, but later Miles remarked, “It’s underhandedly genius [of me]. I have to get Jaclyn naked. It’s a win-win.” It’s also a bit creepy, dude. Mark casually looked over at them and mused, “By now, I just assume Jaclyn will do something undressed.” He then added, “Let me tell you, once you’ve seen ‘em, they’re no big deal.” Hah!

Peregrine was paired with Mark, who tried to pull a Miles, asking her to “pose naked from behind” for him (my “team” and our “hanging brains”!). She got uncomfortable, went silent, then turned the tables nicely, saying she wanted him to take pictures of himself without his shirt, because he’s got this huge stomach scar from a diverticulitis operation. Peregrine’s got game. Mark agreed, adding, “I’m a bit of a patsy — a sucker.” Meanwhile, Nicole discoursed about “allegories of order,” “high chaos,” and “social networks” as Abdi looked on saying, “I’m totally confused.” At this point Mark said, “This show really stretches your bullshitting ability.” Next we see the artists using terms like “signifier,” “tactility,” and “panoptical.” “This is specifically what I am talking about,” said Mark. Word.

During the crits, I was shocked when everyone started talking about Jaclyn masturbating in her painting. ( McGinness actually inquired, “Do you really masturbate standing up?” I was very sad that Jaclyn answered him instead of saying, “Back off, buster.”). I honestly hadn’t noticed that this is what she was doing. I just saw the painting as a depiction of a standing naked woman, covering herself with her hand. I was so embarrassed about this, that later I asked China, “Was Jaclyn masturbating in that painting?” China gave me one of her great “Are you from the Sexless Planet?” looks and walked away. D’oh!

Miles may be manipulative, but he’s confident, skilled with materials, and resourceful. Jaclyn makes a lot of art with herself naked in it, but her execution is solid. For me this team was the clear winner. The battle was over who should go home. I tried hard to ax Abdi for always falling back on the same primary colors, opaque surfaces, and comic-book subject matter. I said I didn’t “trust his vision.” Bill disagreed and fought for his art, rightfully pointing out that Jeanne, absent, had appreciated his work in the past. What to do? Peregrine’s manipulated portrait of Mark might have fallen short, but the ways she used tools, materials, and color was enticing. Nicole’s order machine looked like a toy, but it’s clear she’s a real artist with her own ideas about scale and invention. The short straw had to go to Mark. Mark is a very diligent, committed artist who knows his craft well. But his work consistently reminded me of one of Sol LeWitt’s brilliant “Sentences on Conceptual Art”: “When the artist learns his craft too well, he makes slick art.”

Photo: Barbara Nitke/Bravo