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Jerry Saltz’s Work of Art Recap: Forest for the Trees

I don’t regret doing this show one bit. By this penultimate episode’s end, however, I regretted what this show was doing to me. I never imagined that narrowing down the remaining five artists to a final three on a reality TV show would be this hard. I’ve served on big-deal art school screening committees and grant panels that left me less befuddled. At 2:00 a.m. the judges were still going back and forth about who should stay and who should go. I’m still not sure we made the right call. But I think we did, although at one point I started wishing that Nao and John were still in the running. I reassure myself that if there is no “right” in art there can’t possibly be one in reality TV. Right?

This show started on a drizzly morning as the tired-looking artists piled into two cars. I’ve learned that during the season the artists suffered anxiety attacks, insomnia, and rashes. Two were on antibiotics, one was on steroids, another said she was “put into pre-pre-menopause.” Half-way through the episode I developed a huge blood-blister on my upper-lip. What was going on?! The artists were driven to a Connecticut park on the Long Island Sound. I so wanted to see Simon bound at them trilling, “Hellooo ahhtists!” But I guess this aristocratic poodle doesn’t go outdoors. (The contestants were instead met by China.) The woods reminded me of where Adriana got whacked in The Sopranos. “Run, artists, run!” I thought. China told the bedraggled crew to gather things from the environment, bring them back to the studio, and “make art using materials from nature.” Never mind that all materials come from nature.

Abdi could be seen soul-searching on the rocks; a perfect place, considering that’s where his art has been for weeks. “I’ve lost all knowledge of what I want to do,” he said, dejectedly. I was thrilled to hear this, because that is exactly the recognition he needed to make his work grow. “I need some serious prayer; I have to spend some time with God,” he added. While Miles and Nicole happily talked about “growing up in nature,” Peregrine got pensive, and Jaclyn said she’s “incredibly uncomfortable in the woods.” Ahh, I thought, another poodle.

Back in the studio Jaclyn curled up on the couch, sick as a dog, while Miles got in touch with his inner mad scientist and created a medieval-looking mark-making machine, a shelf with a fungus, and a large bleached stain painting. Even if it’s overkill, I like when artists are willing to fail flamboyantly — and that that’s what this desperation signaled. Whatever happened to Abdi on those rocks, meanwhile, his large levitating-figure drawing popped off the wall. Peregrine was fashioning a silly stick sculpture when Miles suggested that she treat nature as “an urban experience.” She then incorporated little drawings of kids shooting up and having sex in parks, transforming this driftwood-dud scarecrow into an eerie witness to bygone rendezvous.

The artist I was pulling for most? Nicole. Over the weeks, her material acumen and poetic touch impressed. This week, though, she faltered. Instead of trying to beat the other artists (like Abdi, who told Miles “I love you, man,” then confessed, “I want to beat him”), for this all-important last challenge she got so personal that her little igloo-thing removed itself from the room and came off lacking focus, poetry, or even materiality. I was heartbroken. In her crit she further floored me, saying the piece was about her “Native-American Indian ancestry.” I wasn’t stunned to learn of her heritage; I was taken aback because her piece just looked like an architectural design model or a sliced Hostess Snowball. Viewers must have shared my disappointment. Two weeks ago I asked readers of these recaps to rank the remaining artists. You were spot on: Mark was about to go, and the vast majority of you ranked him last. You then ordered Miles and Nicole first and second; Peregrine third; Jaclyn fourth; then Abdi.

You were half-right in your bottom two. It was time for Jaclyn to leave. Anytime she didn’t incorporate autobiographical imagery into it, her art emptied out. That happened this week. Jaclyn is a skilled, solid figure painter whose art isn’t about adapting to challenges. But let’s face it — her work doesn’t “turn back the male gaze”; it tangos with it. Jaclyn’s work will be less stiff if she can learn to paint ironically detached nudes who don’t seem to know they’re naked, like the lady in Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass.

You readers and I both thought Abdi would be the next to go. Yet all of a sudden, this week he moved way beyond his candy-colored comic-book figuration and touched his own inner-artist — a good one. His floating figure might have been a tad academic, but it occupied space brilliantly, turned into a transcendental landscape, and used charcoal in ways that imparted true aesthetic intelligence. Miles? Even those of you who hate him and say he’s a fake might admit that this hateful faker’s installation was personal, complex, and could stand alone in any Chelsea gallery.

The tough call was between Peregrine and Nicole. Either one could have stayed. For weeks I barely noticed Peregrine’s work. Later I saw that inside her was an artist of rare spirit, pixie intellect, and lyrical material wiles. This demanded to be acknowledged. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to ax Nicole. Panicked, I argued against Abdi, saying one good piece shouldn’t spare him. Wiser voices and better angles intervened. Jeannie (who we sorely missed while she was in London, and her gallery won the “Best Booth” prize at the Frieze Art Fair — way to go!), and Bill Powers, who’s had a real feel for Abdi from the start, patiently pointed out that he had impressed the judges previously, that he really made this academic drawing come alive, and that I was being a dick. They were right. None of us had responded deeply to Nicole’s latest pieces. Her time was up.

As Nicole left the show she said, rightly, “This is only the beginning for me.” When I left the show that night, I felt like it was the end of something for me. I was addled by how involved and worked-up I’d become. I was actually taking a reality TV game show about art as seriously as I take my real work. I went into this show for the chance to practice art criticism on TV. I know that much of the art world is appalled that an art critic would even be on a reality show. I feel this way sometimes, too. Yet, leaving after this episode I felt more as I do when I’m teaching, and get totally involved with students whose names I will not remember in 24 months. Only, I was pouring everything I had into this TV show and these artists. When I first started working on WOA, I thought they were okay, student-like, but not at the level of “the real art world.” Later, in Chelsea galleries I caught myself thinking, Hmmm. This work isn’t that much better or worse than some of the stuff I see on Work of Art. What had happened to me?

As I drove home, I started thinking about the unhinged character played by Alex Guinness in the classic David Lean film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. This British P.O.W. assists his Japanese captors in constructing a bridge. He does this to alter the structure of the camp, and to change the way his soldiers are treated. At first it works. But then he becomes so caught up in his what he’s doing that when it comes time for the prisoners to sabotage the bridge, he forgets who he is and tries to save it. I got into this to tinker with a structure that seemed enticing. Now the structure was tinkering with me! I was shattered. Had anyone been in the car with me I’d have asked them what Miles asked the other artists when he making his fungus thing: “Am I going crazy?” Instead, with one more week to go on this long strange trip, I remembered that each episode was emotionally and intellectually different for me. I began to see that with only one week to go that this whole experience, weirdness, wildness and all, was forming into some sort of larger whole.

Check out a slideshow of Jerry Saltz's favorite paintings in New York here.

Photo: Courtesy of Bravo