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Work of Art Recap: Jerry Saltz Works Through the Embarrassment

I’m just getting over the public humiliation of being a televised douchebag. Last week, I gave the artist who turned out to be the loser, Catherine, a hard time when I didn’t know she was sick. All week long, strangers stopped me on the street, snapping, “You’re mean.” A woman at a Met preview scorched me as “callous.” “At least that’s over,” I think as this episode opens — whereupon the artists start off by saying they’re aghast at my “brutality.” D’oh. Anyway: After the credits, our host China Chow announces this week’s challenge: “Create a piece of Pop Art!” My douchbagdom disappears as cringing begins. “Pop is bold! Pop is brash. Pop is sex!” Simon barks. I think, Pop is going to be the death of me.

I’m on this show to explore how art can be brought to non-élite audiences. Yet the way this challenge is phrased reminds me of the bogus ways in which art is translated for popular media. Presenting art to lay audiences is tricky. Explaining why an all-white painting or a snow-shovel or a replica of a Brillo box is art involves a complex set of interweaving contexts, accumulated knowledge, and faith. To the uninitiated, Pop Art is basically bright colors, commercial products, cartoons, celebrity culture — a combination of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. However, if an art student were given an assignment involving Pop Art, he/she would be told to “Create a work which address issues of mechanical reproduction, aura, advertising, and popular culture, making it visually accessible, replete with irony, sincerity, and politics, without being derivative or simplistic.”

Semantics and semiotics aside, it really helps that this week’s guest judge is Robb Pruitt, artist-author of the best-titled art book last year, Pop Touched Me. He’s sweet, smart, and extremely open to exploring the space between public art and public embarrassment. Cut to the artists at work. Jazz-Minh says she was raised by hippie parents who never let her watch TV. Dirty hippies! I think, and begin to worry. Leon supposes he’s on track when he observes that we live in a world of logos. No! Really? Then he adds that he’s placing logotypes on an American flag. Before you can say “Jasper Johns,” Tewz mentions that he served time in Cook County jail for graffiti writing, and shows the smarts he may have picked up on the inside, craftily asking art-smart Young for his definition of Pop Art. Young’s excellent answer induces Tewz to offer, “That’s what I think, too.” Of course you did. Then he goes the full Leon, talking about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Equally out of his element, Sucklord gasses on about Charlie Sheen, tiger blood, gods, goddesses, and witches’ dust. As I think Holy goth, he adds, “I need a naked model.” At least he’s got his priorities straight. I gleefully wait for the female contestants to shut him down. Lola then tells the camera that Sucklord “is one of those boys who shouldn’t be attractive … but he’s so cool … I’m single; I’m lonely.” I secretly vow that, if these two boink before the end of the season, I’m quitting the show. Bravo? Do you hear me?

Sex is in the air tonight. Or the water. Kimia, who should have won for her striking piece but didn’t because the work was multifaceted enough to actually transcend the challenge and become something larger than pop art, poses topless holding a bottle of murky reddish liquid. Simon shows us just how just how deep his aristocratic roots go when he ponders the photo and wonders, “Is this the Pimm’s they drink at Wimbledon?” Wow! Show him boobs, and he goes right to tennis? Sucklord, as ever, retains his focus, murmuring, “Nice tits … I wish that Sarah K. had made this. She has a really great pair.” Maybe all the artists are randy from being sequestered like this, living on top of one another, never having any private time: One of last year’s female contestants later told me that in “reality TV prison … unable to really masturbate,” she thought she was “going to explode.”

Dusty makes a horrendous design-project trash basket that reads "HOW COULD YOU?" He says it’s Pop because it’s about the dangers of fast food, or heart disease, or his father’s heart attack. Bayeté makes an insipid portrait, but comes closest to the mark when he says, “I hate my piece.” (“You’re lucky you have immunity this week,” responds China.) The consistently good Lola and Young do well this week, as does Sarah K. But apart from the previously excellent Michelle, who painted a Coke can that is supposed to be Pop because it has zero calories, nobody else made anything I remember. I was glad this was a double-elimination week. It could have been triple. At home, I experience an onset of shame: for art, for the artists for putting themselves and us through this, for wanting to see if art can be on TV, for thinking yellow boat shoes made for an interesting outfit.

Right then, something wonderful starts to happen. During the judges’ sequence, I see us touching on ideas about Pop Art and even art in general that often elude language and that are hard to explain. We articulate why things do and don’t work. Michelle’s Coke painting fails not for being derivative or weakly reasoned, but for being a generic photorealist painting (she sure has chops, though). Dusty’s garbage can is bad because its thinking is muddled and the object is visually inert. Leon’s doesn’t work because his piece isn’t stylistically or conceptually original or personal, and because it relies entirely on received ideas. He is one of the two artists who gets the boot this week.

Young won for his piece about California’s Proposition 8 and gay marriage — not for his p.c. subject matter, but because he took on scale, color, advertising, powerful messaging, and communication in a very direct, visually forceful way, produced in the quasi-political conceptual way in which he already works. At least it felt that way in the gallery. Saddest is Jazz-Minh’s good-girl/bad-girl photos. During the episode, we see her working from her gut, without thinking, on the fly, creating a powerfully direct confrontational photo of herself looking directly at the camera, pulling her lower lip down, not sexually, but frankly letting us see a tattoo on the inside of her lip that says “Bite me.” She’d have won with this; for showing her inner self, talking back to the camera with her body, transcending the challenge, and not being concerned with whether it was even art. Artists often miss these accidental moments of grace and instead try to think their ways through problems. This potentially powerful artist mixed her messages, meanings, and intentions, ending up too coy, clever, and complicated, and was sent home. Her original photograph has what the final one lacks: surprise, obsession, energy, what Yeats called “heart mysteries.”

At home, I remember why I love this strange, strange show. I remember how much I love artists for being willing to embarrass themselves in public, for doing things they don’t understand, and getting around cant. This is what I’ve come to think of as the Erotics of Trying, of being open and vulnerable, of fully trusting untrustworthy impulses and making things that aren’t about understanding but that are about something else. This “something else” is what art is — and some of it was in the air last night.

Photo: David Giesbrecht/Bravo