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Jerry Saltz's Work of Art Recap: Riddle of the Spanx

WORK OF ART: THE NEXT GREAT ARTIST -- Episode 205 "Ripped from the Headlines" -- Pictured: (l-r) Adam McEwan, Jerry Saltz -- Photo by: David Giesbrecht /Bravo

Like all bad mysteries, this week’s episode begins on a cold, gray day. As the artists are being driven to New Jersey for their challenge, I think of Ahab’s words about Moby-Dick: “He tasks me.” I guess this makes China and Simon the artists’ white whales. Zonked, perhaps, by the Bravo house arrest under which they live, they peer out of the van, shell-shocked by the open spaces and real life going on around them. Some look punch-drunk; others, strung out. Bayeté and Michelle look like they’re planning a breakout. Sarah K. cackles (ah, mute alert, Bravo?!). Listening, I learn that some of the artists don’t like Lola. This takes me back. In the short bursts during which I saw the group during taping, Lola seemed moody and intense, and looked at people through her hair a lot, but she struck me as a canny, kind, sensitive soul whose circuits had been slightly singed from her mom’s dating Al Pacino for ten years while she was a kid. Onscreen, Sara calls Lola “crazy” and “childish.” Kymia says that she’s a “drama queen.” Maybe this is why Lola forlornly says she doesn’t want Sucklord to go home: “I see romantic potential there.” This pathos almost makes me renounce my vow to quit the show if the two of them hook up. Almost.

Since artist vulnerabilities are coming out, I’ll share one of my own. An hour before taping, I’m standing in my underpants in front of the show’s gorgeous twentysomething stylist, Zoe, thinking to myself, Drink in the macho, baby! Zoe quietly looks me over and says, “Um, Jerry. Do you like spanks?” Wow! The old male magic is still sizzling! I heard this generation is kinky! She wants to spank me! Here. In a reality TV dressing room! With the door partly open! Then she holds up a teeny-weenie doll-sized elastic undershirt thingy. “This is a Spanx,” she says. A girdle. My ego retracts, turtlehead-like. Ditto my genitals. Reality TV isn’t just making me look fat. The free food I’ve been grazing on for weeks is showing! I ask Zoe if this garment is “a fat repressor.” Carefully not using terms like “muffin top” or “s’more,” she says, “Spanx are trimming.” I wedge myself into it. I had no idea what kind of constricting strangulation goes on under some women’s clothes.

This week’s challenge is issued to the artists amid the amazing automated New Jersey plant of the New York Times. The artists are to pick a headline from a mountain of newspapers and make a work of art incorporating the newspaper and the story. Michelle looks around at the whirring conveyor belts and papers whizzing around, observing, “Your newspaper has so much fun before it gets to you!” So far Michelle has consistently made great work. When she doesn’t I still see in her considerable talent and the mystical spirit of a true artist. This week she chooses a powerfully personal story: Accident victims unable to prove they’ve been in accidents. This happened to Michelle when she was struck last year by a hit-and-run driver while riding her bicycle in Brooklyn. Although she was severely injured and her legs were disfigured, and she still walks with a limp, the law hasn’t yet acted. Her painting this week of scarred legs makes me quake.

As does Lola’s inspired piece. Even if she’s impossible, I see in her work an original struggle to square internal tension with the real world. I am taken by her drawing of Libyan rebels with observations and words scrawled in the landscape. Lola has invented an economical way to occupy the extraordinarily uncanny space between photography, the news, drawing, and thinking. Adam McEwen, our articulate guest judge this week, is also taken by her work and agrees that her drawing would stand up in any Chelsea gallery. 

This is the second week in a row I’m put off by something emotionally impervious about Sara J., who reasons, “I’m a Cancer, and Cancers are emotional.” Young puts a truer spin on this, saying his mother has cancer, and if his spot-on piece about Chinese dissonant artist Ai Weiwei wins the $20,000 that comes with tonight’s challenge he’ll buy a headstone for his recently deceased father. Wait. Did someone say $20,000 reward for winning one week’s challenge??! As Michelle observes, “I don’t think anyone in this room has ever had $20,000 in their bank account.” (Watching at home, I think, “That goes for anyone in this room as well.”) But I’m thrilled that one of these artists may get something for his or her effort.

Any of the three artists selected for the negative crits could have been sent home this week. Maybe all three. Sucklord says “I can’t phone in another turkey or I’m finished.” The piece of poultry Mr. Lord delivers this time, like the one he turned in last week, starts magically. He fashions an oversize wooden newspaper with rectangles cut out to show an oil spill. It perfectly captures the way the news about the BP oil spill just kept oozing out of the media. Of course, the risk-averse nonartist in Sucklord scraps this potential winner for an idiotic pile of wooden dollar bills that he wraps in, I kid you not, the New York Times because, as he reasons, the Times is somehow complicit in the oil spill. I imagine 55 conspiracy theorists in our audience perking up, and hundreds of thousands of other viewers vowing to quit the show if Lola hooks up with Sucklord.

Also in the bottom three is Sarah K., who’s never had a crit before. As is also true in art school, this can mean one of two things. She’s so good that she hasn’t needed any guidance. Or, as in this case, as the cast gets smaller, her flaws are becoming more noticeable. One teeny text-collage fragment within her work had psychic-visual compression and density. She added so many other elements that the piece just came off as busy hands guided by a buzzing mind. A dangerous combination.

Bayeté was sent home because his golden double-door hanging sculpture fell flat as an object, an idea, or anything other than store display. I imagine that in Bayeté’s true artist’s heart — and he is a true artist — the exhaustion I think I saw in him back in the van finally caught up with him. I suspect he’d even admit that this week he lapsed.

And so did I. Young won with his timely, well-made painted newspapers asking “Where Is Ai Weiwei?” But Lola’s text drawing was an original incursion into the secret domain of art where material and meaning mingle to make new things. Why it didn’t win remains a riddle of the Spanx.

Photo: David Giesbrecht /Bravo/Bravo