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Work of Art Recap: Jerry Saltz Learns About Dancing Naked in Public

I’m afraid of fame. Not of being famous — that would be great, and would most likely pay better than anything I’m doing now. No: I’m afraid of famous people. When I’m around them, my chakras get jammed. On the outside, I affect a happy hologram of normality; inside, I’m going haywire. I act funny, say stupid things, become overly chummy, or often just hide. All the while I’m thinking, I can’t believe I’m with so-and-so. This is the strange power of being famous. John Waters once called it “a curse.”

This week, Sarah Jessica Parker was the guest judge on Work of Art. Knowing this, I freaked out while driving to the studio, frantically texting the directors and producers to “Keep me away from SJP! I will not appear on-camera with her!” (and other things with lots of emoticons). In the studio, they all came into the dressing room and incredulously said, “Are you joking, Jerry?” I went into a long, serious spiel about how if the art world sees me with SJP, my reputation will be stained. They looked at me like I was crackers, as I opined that as an art critic, I had to maintain my “values” and “integrity.” I said all this as the shiny spot on my head was being powdered by a makeup woman and I was wearing only underpants. Every week, this show reveals another misstep in what I used to believe was my own flawless thinking.

On to the taping: I love this week’s challenge. Each artist is asked to respond to a work of art made by a child (on hand in the studio) with one of his or her own. This simple challenge works wonders, lifting all the contestants out of their comfort zones. Iffy artists step up; good ones get better; bad ones bottom out. I later learn that this challenge was SJP’s idea, and that she linked the show up with the extraordinary Studio in the School art program.

The scenes of artists at work in their studios are revealing. Not knowing what to do, Sara J. asks her kid, “Have you ever heard of exquisite corpse?” (I can only imagine what the kid was thinking.) I totally love it when Michelle asks whether she's allowed to touch them—meaning the kids, not the art. When her inner ghoul talks to her child about “swans pecking people’s eyes out,” I really perk up. I dig Lola and Young’s discomfort with their children. Young jumps the conceptual-art shark, asking his child, “Would you mind if I abstracted your idea?” Lola stares at her kid like it’s an alien (generally my mode of behavior in these situations). Some artists go gaga. Schoolteacher Dusty is a natural. Kymia somehow gets her reticent kid to spin an elaborate backstory for her drawing, and ends up rocking the house with a wonderful Grimm’s fairy tale foray into fantasy, horror, overeating, and innocence.

God help me, I even find myself sweet on Sucklord, who for one second drops his act and shows his inner sap, saying of his kid, “She’s just like me, a little super-villain.” Maybe this is why Lola says, “Even a Sucklord can be cute.” Speaking of Lola: gigantic fame alert! She tells the camera that, while she was growing up, her mom dated Al Pacino for ten years. No wonder I sometimes think Lola’s chakras are easily stressed, and that may help to explain something that happens to her work this week. In the studio, she’s making a fantastic Henry Darger–style drawing that tells me she has a real way of lacing together drawing, imagination, inner life, and intricate ideas. Yet as soon as Simon says he doesn’t get what she’s doing, she begins again, just like that. Lola! Artists! You gotta know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em. Or whatever it is. Shaken, she makes a crappy pastel flower piece that, lucky for her, doesn’t get her voted off the island.

Sucklord comes as close as he’s ever come to actually making what I’d call art. In an inspired leap, he translates an already good tree drawing into a better sculptural Styrofoam tree. But instead of seeing how excellently mythic this tree-thing is in its raw state, he gives in to his idiotic inner super-villain, paints it over, and places Star Wars characters on it. Sucklord! You Shall Not Pass!

I love Michelle’s super-strange paper sculpture with sinister eyes. It should have won. Dusty’s abstract portrait with moving parts was lovely and his best piece thus far. So somehow he squeaks through to the winner’s circle — which is fine, as Michelle is such a force as an artist I’m now sure she’ll be hard to stop. Sara J. should have gone home this week for selfishly being unable to get over herself, ignoring her kid’s multicolored, large-scaled word grid (the best single work among the kids’) and made a bathos-filled generic grid about her own childhood traumas and her parents’ divorce. (You wouldn’t believe the uncontrollable crying that went on during her crit.) I’m sorry, artists — all of us have dark, even hair-raising pasts. Many of us have darker presents. Why else would some of us be drawn to being on a reality-TV game show?

Kymia’s fairy tale is the winner, and the undeserving loser this week is an artist I’ve been pretty hard on, Tewz. I have to admit I kind of like his concrete sculpture of the word grow. But I suspect this self-defined “street artist” would have been sent home sooner or later. As he said of us when we were unable to see that his work was what he called “beautiful,” “Fuck ’em.” After we filmed, I went to his website for a look, and if he reins in his cartooning tendencies and the ’tude, he could be fine.

Which is exactly how I felt about myself by show’s end. The extremely famous Sarah Jessica Parker was one of the sweetest, most articulate, perceptive, sensitive, smart guest judges we’ve had on the show. She spoke more clearly about art than most people in the art world do. She not only deactivated the fame curse — she ably got me over my idiotic prejudices about celebrity. Strange brew, this dancing naked in public.

Photo: David Giesbrecht /Bravo