For anyone who’s never been a judge on an American reality-TV game show about art — which is about everyone who ever lived in the history of the world except maybe a dozen dodos like me — the penultimate episode presents the hardest decision of the season. By far. You’ve pretty much weeded through contestants who, while good, probably never had a shot. And this is a double elimination. Plus, it becomes harder if, like me, you don’t separate yourself well from situations and get overinvested, which leads to an inability to appreciate the irony, wrongness, absurdity of your impressions; in short, if you’re an inner drama queen and hysteric. This week that part of my psyche got caught in the built-in schism between art on a reality-TV show and art in reality, and I fell into my own burning ring of fire. Which is fine. What isn’t fine is that this impinged on an undeserving artist.
More on my weaknesses later. I really like this week’s challenge, a lot. On a rainy day, the artists arrive by train in Cold Spring, New York, about 60 miles north of the city. China tells them they have two hours to find someone in town and “make a portrait of them.” I love watching the artists trying to meet people, size them up, ask to do their portraits. I watch doors slammed on artist’s faces, irked explanations, brush-offs. Eventually, however, they all hit pay dirt. Sara’s I-love-a-man-in-uniform fetish kicks in (straight women, please explain). She walks in front of the fire station and starts talking to the firemen (I notice my wife does this, too). Soon she’s arranged to do a portrait of Jackie, a 58-year veteran of the fire department. Over the weeks, I’ve come to respect Sara’s work. It helps that she does the best Simon impression of any artist so far. Her portrait starts as an enlarged picture of Jackie. Then she makes it better by connecting painting and sculpture, hammering the portrait in metal with little holes. It’s cool. Then she makes it hokey and ugly by adding 58 aluminum rectangles that tumble out of one side of the image. In my mind, Sara has just become the first of my two losers.
As for loser No. 2: Dusty, being Dusty, finds a cute-as-a-button little girl with her mom on Main Street and starts connecting with her like crazy. At home, I get misty and think, I want to have his baby. Weird. Daughter connects to Dusty, too, and wants him to do her portrait. He deems he’ll do her in M&Ms. Fun, colorful, and gimmicky, but this cross between Chuck Close and Vik Muniz looks almost exactly like the clown portrait that almost got him axed the first week. Dusty almost saves himself when he starts to make the portrait out of origami fortune tellers. Then, he defaults to his original idea and becomes my second loser. On the set I think, Thank God, there’ll be none of the next-to-last-episode hysterics I had last year as I agonized about what to do with Nicole.
As for the possible winners: Young approaches a local artist in his shop/studio and offers to pay him $20 if he’ll paint his portrait (at least he didn’t bet him $10,000). Young, meanwhile, snaps pictures for his portrait of the portrait painter painting him. The whole thing is so hall-of-mirrors intriguing it’s a sure thing that Young will make the finals. And deserves to. Next, I feel even better about the world Lola falls into, in her abstract double portrait of two owners of a local coin shop. She goes the challenge one better, using money, text, written notes to the owners, and other concoctions to create a conceptual portrait. I feel the same optimism in front of Kymia’s gnarly painting of the owners of an antique shop, an older couple who look like Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. Her weird realism is Dorian Gray meets Paula Rego. Kymia, Lola, and Young will make a great finale. In my mind, I’ll pretend Michelle is making a poop piece and that Sucklord is reciting Star Wars from the closet.
Then into hell, as the beams of TV reality and actual reality cross. As an art critic, I have a regular M.O. in which I see and write about shows without ever talking to or really getting to know the artist. I simply want to base my impressions more or less on the exact same things most viewers will see. The way Work of Art is made requires me to do my looking in far less time, with a dozen cameras following me, occasionally wearing the man-girdle called Spanx, but this process still echoes my regular way of looking at art — and the speed deciding is a fun challenge. But this week Bravo throws a huge spanner into my critical works: The subjects are invited to the gallery show.
I find myself in the middle of a group of big firemen. Maybe my man-in-uniform thing kicks in. I’m not sure how this happens, but they start asking me lots of questions, demanding, “Do you know how much Jackie was paid for all of his work over the last 58 years?” Before I can answer they say, “Nothing, that’s what he was paid! He gave his whole life to this job. For no money. Did you know that?!” I start freaking out. I think, Oh my. What an amazing man! An American hero. On top of that, I’m intimidated, even scared of them. And I’m all alone with them, off-camera, having finally freed myself for ten minutes to walk around and congratulate myself for getting through this ninth week without any problems. Somehow, some way, in this demented state, surrounded by these big New York guys who are looking around at the other art like it’s sissy stuff, I somehow decide that Sara’s fireman portrait is patriotic and important and very good art. Immediately after this, in the judges’ deliberations, Lola’s portrait is being seriously questioned for “not being a real portrait,” being “too obscure,” “evasive.” Someone demands, “Where are the owners?” Someone else says Lola hasn’t actually done the assignment. Add to all this the unnerving experience of constantly being stopped by strangers on the street and the numerous comments on these recaps from people who basically say, “Are you nuts? I don’t understand what you see in Lola’s work. She’s got to go!” And in all of this, in exhaustion, my critical switch gets flipped.
It all seems so obvious to me now. Even though I’d known that Lola had made a complex work of art that I really liked and that embodied a kind of canonic defiance of the form and format of portraiture; that she altered the visual and conceptual rhetoric and terms of portrait-making; occupied a gap between abstraction and obsession, cerebral and visual information; created an optical absence; given introspective human voice to invisibility: Even though these things should have guaranteed her a shot in the finals, in that moment I fall to my own exhaustion, weaknesses, and unsure confusion, and Lola is sent home. The three artists in the finals are all good. The one who didn’t make it is, too.