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Jerry Saltz’s Work of Art Recap: Elimination Heartbreak

The melancholy I felt about the artist we sent home this week, and the irrational ways I acted off-camera, bring to mind Dante’s The Inferno: “Its very memory gives a shape to fear.” Toward the end of this episode, the drama queen in me held sway behind the scenes. More on that later.

As the episode opens, the artists are mourning the departure of the Sucklord, last week’s loser — a guy so consumed with his adolescent fixation that when sent home he actually quoted Obi-Wan Kenobi, saying, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean, coming from an actual human being. Whether trying to inherit Sucklord’s ladies’ man status or just show his girly-man side, Dusty attempts to don Young’s short-shorts, quipping, “I can barely even get my junk into these things.” I note that Kymia’s eyes do seem to light up. Hmmm.

The artists meet Simon and China in the gallery, where they’re issued this week’s challenge: Make a work of art out of the parts of a 2012 Fiat 500 that has been laid out in 2,000 pieces on the floor. (The elegant way the parts are arrayed deserved the win this week.) China snaps, “Your fifteen minutes begin now”; the artists run in all directions, gathering gears and wires and nuts and bolts. Dusty offers that “I’m a guy’s guy, so I should be able to do this.” Michelle says, “I’m fucking excited. I want to make a window-licking fetishistic eyeball-popping piece.” Wow! This could be even better than the poop piece no one wanted her to make. Equally excellent: Lola muses about fossilizing cars, ancient rubbings, crystals, and stuff. Kymia goes a bit too cosmic, saying she wants to grind down her car key and make it into an interstellar constellation box to represent the universe … or something. Sara J. totally finds her sculptural groove, transforming cotton and the exhaust system into a Brancusi-like abstract-primitive-mechanistic fetish. Sarah K. really rises to the occasion, keeps it simple, and flays two leather car seats, splaying them on canvas to look like saber-tooth-tiger carcasses.

All is well until Simon’s crits, when things go haywire. Michelle is making her best piece yet, an abstract animistic body out of gears and cut paper, whereupon Simon tells her that “it should have been made for the children’s-art challenge.” Michele deflates, then loses her bearings. Ditto Lola, who’s wrapped a car door in tinfoil and made some neo-Aztec prints from car parts. After Simon says he’s “skeptical,” Lola sobs, “It’s not fair; I’m freaking out.” Artists!

Before this week, I’d never met our guest judge, Liz Cohen, who’s made great sculpture out of cars. I was blown away by how clear and spot-on she is as a judge, and glad she was there to shepherd me though the dark hours that were to come. In the judging, the two top places are narrowed down quickly. Sarah K.’s full-frontal car-seat piece is very strong, and it could have won. But Sara J. takes home the prize, for the otherness of her exhaust pipes from an archaic, preindustrial society.

Then comes the elimination round, and I face my three faves at once: Kymia, Lola, and Michelle. That’s where my internal (and not so internal) drama begins. Though you don’t see it on the air, I started ranting during the taping: “How could you three do this to me! You’re all so good!” Things got so bad that the director called for a break, whereupon I turned around and saw the whole crowd of producers and directors looking on with concern. I then tried to convince them to let us re-select the bottom three, and this time include Dusty and Young. They looked at me like I was bonkers. So I came back with this: “Let’s issue reality TV’s first ever post–Thanksgiving Day presidential pardon. Let’s not vote anyone off this week. Wouldn’t that be great?” Silence. I slunk off to brood by myself, coming back only to understand in my little art-critic heart what had to happen. And then it did.

Back on the set: Kymia’s piece, an idiotic little box you looked in to supposedly see something moving around that she thought conjured the night sky, totally fizzles. In fact, it had broken before I could even see it. It’s worse than anything Sucklord had ever made. Yet the drawing she’d made a few weeks back for the kids’ challenge had been so astounding and strong I was still thinking about it. That saves her. Lola’s finished piece had got way too complicated, but it’s odd and materially intriguing enough to squeak by. My heart sinks as I finally have to admit to myself that Michelle’s thing — it looked like a happy-face Herbie — was this week’s weakest no matter how I tried to slice it.

That’s how it ends for the person I had thought could win the entire competition, an artist who even when she was off was always materially, conceptually, and psychically smart, whose soul is so obviously that of a good, maybe very good artist. When around her, I often found myself in a strange awe of her artistic grace. I believe Michelle has a real future in the real art world. But not on our reality-TV game show about art. 

Photo: Bravo