As I was watching the first episode of Work of Art, I kept thinking about Pablo Picasso. Stick with me here. In 1905 and 06, Pablo Picasso painted a now-iconic portrait of writer Gertrude Stein. He didn’t paint her with two eyes on one side of her head or anything, but the face is definitely stylized and resembles an African mask. Upon seeing the portrait, one person commented to Picasso that Stein didn’t look like her portrait. Picasso replied, “She will.”
The theme for the first episode of Work of Art is portraits. Host and judge, China Chow tells us that the 14 contestants were given an assignment before they arrived: create a self-portrait. The various self-portraits are hung on the walls of the set/art gallery and the artist all dole out critiques of their competitors as they arrive. No one is jumping for joy over anyone else’s work. Among the most vocal is Nao, who waves dismissively at pretty much everything she sees, setting herself up to be the “I’m not here to make friends” character of the season.
Here’s a little run down on our 14 artists, with their hometowns (more interesting than where they currently live since, predictably, at least half of them live in NYC):
- Abdi, 23, Baltimore, MD – In Abdi’s self portrait, he depicted himself as a space alien. He’s packing some major skills.
- Nao, 46, San Joaquin, CA – Nao is a performance artist. Performance artists tend to be the most pretentious and self-important of all artists and Nao doesn’t seem to be an exception. We see video of her with a plastic bag full of water over her head….then she tears the bag open. I was underwhelmed.
- Ryan, 27, Libertyville, IL – Ryan likes using classic oil painting techniques. He’s also a fan of giant scarves and sleeping until noon (and then painting until 5 am). He tells us he’s broke most of the time.
- Jaclyn, 26, Miami, FL –Jaclyn boasts that she worked as studio assistant to Jeff Koons…and now she’s doing a reality show, so I’d say that’s a giant step down. Jaclyn has a high opinion of her looks, telling us that people don’t expect someone like her to be an artist. As if all artists look vaguely homeless and underfed…..sort of like Ryan.
1323, Minneapolis, MN – Let’s just call him Doogie with OCD. Miles’ audition video features him taking a bath and talking about how much he can get done while in the tub – he eats breakfast, makes a to-do list and presumably organizes his toiletries.
- Trong, 38, Saigon, Vietnam (but, you know, he lives in NYC now) – while Trong looks like he styles his hair with a weed whacker or is hoping to be cast in Dumb and Dumber 3, he’s apparently pretty well-known in the New York art scene as an artist and curator. Several other contestants, including Judith, recognize him and wonder why he’s on the show.
- Amanda, 35, Chicago, IL– Amanda is a former architect who decided to dedicate her time to art instead.
- Nicole, 25, New York, NY – Nicole thinks very highly of her looks as does at least one male contestant, Erik, who spends quite a lot of time this episode mooning at Nicole.
- Erik, 31, Homer Glen, IL – Erik tells anyone who will listen that he’s not formally trained and has never shown his work outside his house. This may be a train wreck…and I’ll be sitting in the front row to watch.
- Judith, 62, Albany, NY – Judith has clearly been around for a while and seems to be amused and horrified by her fellow contestants.
- Peregrine, 33, San Francisco, CA – Peregrine boasts that the Whitney Museum of Art bought some of her work when she was just 22. This may be the only interesting thing about Peregrine – aside from her name – since I barely wrote anything else down about her for the rest of the hour.
- Jamie Lynn, 25, Lawton, OK – Jamie Lynn draws, paints and is a Christian, all of which we learn within two seconds of her opening her mouth for the first time on the show. This may not bode well.
- Mark, 32, Santa Maria, CA – Mark says it’s tough to break into the art world from Santa Maria, which is not hard to believe if you’ve ever been there.
- John, 40, Dekalb, IL– while John may be an extremely cool person, he did nothing memorable in this episode, proven by the fact that I took exactly zero notes about him.
Now that the artists have had some time to make thinly veiled criticisms of each other’s work, it’s time to meet our host, as well as the man who will serve as a mentor to the artists this season.
First up is China Chow. She’ll act as both the show’s host and a judge. China grew up in the midst of the New York art community – her father is, well, Mr. Chow, as in the restaurant where anyone who was anyone in 1980’s Manhattan – including big deal artists like Julian Schnabel and Andy Warhol, among others - ate.
Simon de Pury is, to put it simply, a big, fat hairy deal. He now heads his own art auction house, but he worked for Sotheby’s for 16 years….and by “worked” I mean, he was the Chairman of the company. He didn’t carry paintings into auction halls for a living. He’s curated exhibitions at major museums all over the world and tells the artists he is there to give advice, help and even moral support.
There will be ten challenges this season and the last artist standing will win $100,000 and have a solo show at the prestigious Brooklyn Museum, the second largest art museum in New York. It’s a good prize, so I hope the judges choose wisely.
Who Are You?
Continuing the theme of portraits, in the first challenge the contestants will be paired off and create a self-portrait of their team mate. The portrait should show the inner essence of the subject and not just their likeness. The pairs are:
Judith and Jaclyn
Jamie Lynn and Amanda
Trong and John
Mark and Erik
Abdi and Ryan
Peregrine and Nicole
Nao and Miles
Simon and China send the artists off to check out their workspace, which is loaded with every kind of art supply you can imagine. I drooled a little. The artists are given 30 seconds to plan out their portrait and then get started. Judith immediately starts talking about her cat portraits and how she envisions doing one of Jaclyn called “Proud Pussy.” Jaclyn and I look appropriately perplexed and slightly offended….and also checking the date since Judith’s idea is so very 1990’s…or 1950’s, I’m not sure.
Before the artist can get started on their portraits, Simon returns to the studio with a surprise. In walks Work of Art executive producer, Sarah Jessica Parker. She tells the starstruck artists, “Be brave, be competitive and be yourself.” In what he later admits is a horrible joke, Miles pretends he has no idea who SJP is. To her credit, she takes it in stride and doesn’t act offended that someone on the planet might not know who she is.
The artists get down to work:
- John vows to create a portrait of Trong that is worthy of his coolness.
- Nao watches are Miles pulls out the power tools and starts building something.
- Erik, for what will be the first of at least 800 times, will talk about how he feels like he’s out of his league.
- Jaclyn whines that it’s hard to work on a portrait of Judith because she’s so much older than the models Jaclyn is used to. I suppress the urge to throw things at the TV.
- Miles explains that he is building a dark room, which is necessary for screen printing.
- Nao decides that her portrait of Miles will be a “mapping” of Miles’ flurry of movements around the studio. That may be her explanation, but the result is a bunch of dots.
- Because Mark is funny, Erik puts a clown nose on him for his portrait.
- Mark takes a photograph of Erik that he will manipulative in Photoshop to make Erik look tougher.
- Miles’ portrait of Nao will be an homage to death portraits, which he says reflects the morbid nature of Nao’s work.
- Erik is impressed with Miles because he’s loud and has specialized tools. That sounds dirty, but it’s not.
- Amanda announces that she will be using pattern to depict Jamie Lynn
- Trong’s portrait of John will be done on decorative wallpaper.
- Miles is totally flustered by Nicole, especially now that Peregrine is painting her in the nude. Sadly for Miles, Nicole isn’t posing the nude.
- Proving that Nao isn’ the only catty on in the group, Judith calls Erik’s piece “amateurish.”
Make It Work!
Simon arrives to check in with the artists and does his best Tim Gunn impression. He tells Amanda that he can’t see how her painting reflects Jamie Lynn at all. He’s also perplexed by Nao’s work. It’s conceptually interesting, but not so much visually. Simon also seems puzzled by Erik’s portrait of Mark, which I think looks more like something out of Stephen King’s It. Miles gives Simon a tour of the screen printing tent he has built and Simon praises the sophisticated technique Miles is using. Simon also seems impressed with Mark’s portrait of Erik, a photograph that he’s manipulating in Photoshop to make Erik look tougher and grittier.
Simon reminds the artists that the winner of this challenge will have immunity from elimination next week. They will be able to work until midnight tonight and will be able to come back in the morning to finish up their pieces. At 5 minutes until midnight, the light bulb Miles was using breaks, which means he can’t screen print. That was probably the last light bulb in Manhattan, so Miles is screwed. He whips himself into an OCD frenzy and wonders how he’ll finish the portrait.
This season, the artists will be staying at the William Beaver House, which is a super poshity posh building Downtown. Clearly, Bravo is sparing no expense. Too bad the artists will likely spend no more than 5 hours a day there.
The next morning, the day of the first gallery show, the artists will have time in the studio to finish their work. Since Miles can’t screen print, he decides to experiment. He manages to tile together print-outs of the portrait and then screen print with the few screens he was able to finish. Honestly, it’s pretty cool. Judith is puzzled by Amanda’s description of her work and snarks that the description is more interesting than the actual piece.
At the gallery where the pieces are all arranged, we meet the rest of the judges.
- Like, Simon de Pury, Jerry Saltz is also a big, fat, hairy deal in the art world. The senior art critic for New York Magazine, Saltz is a two-time Pulitzer finalist.
- Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn is kind of a socialite gallerist. Her father was a big time collector and she’s gone into the family business.
- Bill Powers is a gallery owner, art collector and husband to fashion designer Cynthia Rowley.
The gallery doors are opened and in come the judges and assorted gallery crawlers. The artists stand by nervously trying to gauge the judges’ opinions. Miles complains that they all seem to have poker faces: he can’t tell what any of them are thinking.
The Judgment of
Once the judges have reviewed the artists’ work, they gather everyone together. China calls out six artists – Erik, Abdi, Amanda, Mark, Miles and Nao – who must stay and talk to the judges. The other eight artists are safe from elimination and can leave.
First up to explain his work is Miles. When asked about the plastic hanging from the portrait, he explains that it mirrors Nao’s work where she had a plastic bag around her head. Nao explains that Miles was all over the place in the studio, so her portrait is a map of his movements. She admits that none of that would be obvious to the viewer, but argues with Jerry Saltz when he says that isn’t the point of a portrait. Nao continues to talk back to the judges, saying it’s not her job to explain her work. Nothing like making a first impression.
Erik explains his use of the paint palette, saying that Mark is kind of clownish, so he wanted to be able to contain that. Bill Powers is not happy about the easel and brings up John Wayne Gacy’s clown paintings. Yikes. That’s probably not a comparison any artist wants. Erik rolls out the “I’m untrained” excuse again. Jerry Saltz lectures him that he cannot continue to use his lack of formal training as an excuse.
In talking about his portrait of Erik, Mark says he wanted to create a more aggressive appearance by focusing on Erik’s tattoos. Jerry Saltz praises Mark: the pose is powerful. Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn (whose full name I will not be writing out all season) notes that photography has pretty much taken over portraiture and Mark’s work is right on.
Amanda claims she captured the essence of what she thought Jamie Lynn was. She doesn’t use representational images. Frankly, I’d be offended if someone interpreted me as bad wallpaper. Jerry Saltz says the piece is design or landscape, but it’s not a portrait to anyone but Amanda.
Abdi says that when they first met, Ryan was sweating, so he thought of an oven and heat and that’s what inspired the feel of his portrait. Jeanne calls it contemporary and nasty: he really captured his subject.
The judges then excuse the artists so they can make their decisions. Nao – in a brief moment of slight self-awareness – wonders if she might have been a bit rude to the judges.
China Chow says she’s impressed with how much the artists accomplished in a short amount of time.
Jeanne likes Miles’ work, citing its sexiness and tension. Bill likes that Miles cited historical images in a contemporary way. Jeanne says Abdi created a fantastic painting. China agrees: Adbi really captured Ryan. Bill liked the vertical thrust of the portrait (heh. He said “thrust.”). Bill thinks Mark really captured the spirit of Erik. Jeanne agrees, saying Mark’s work was very commercial. Bill was really embarrassed by Erik’s clown piece. Jerry says he didn’t mind the clown painting, but he minded the way Erik painted it. It just looked like a clown painting: it wasn’t a portrait. Jeanne says Nao seems to have gotten a little lost and Jerry says it was just too obscure. Bill agrees, saying he couldn’t sell Nao’s work in a gallery. Jerry says he didn’t mind that Nao didn’t agree with the judges, but she was too closed off to other opinions. Jerry wouldn’t have known Amanda’s work was a portrait and Jeanne says it looked like very good wallpaper.
You're Not Worthy
A la Top Chef the judges will talk to the top three and the bottom three separately. The top three are up first. The top 3 for this challenge are Miles, Mark and Abdi. The winner will get immunity next week. They cut right to the chase and give Miles the win, saying he captured the essence of his subject. I’m not sure how flattered Nao should be by that statement since Miles did a death portrait of her. It doesn’t exactly speak to her sparkling personality.
Now that the good news has been delivered, it’s time to lower the boom on someone. The bottom three – Nao, Erik and Amanda – are called in to face the judges. China lectures them: good art isn’t about what it looks like, but how it makes us feel – none of their work made the judges feel anything. I don’t know about that. I was feeling pretty annoyed when looking at Nao’s piece…..although maybe that had more to do with the artist.
The judges dish out their criticisms:
- There wasn’t enough portrait in Nao’s work
- There’s no excuse for bad painting, Erik
- Amanda’s “portrait” didn’t communicate anything about Jamie – it was too abstract.
In the end, Amanda is given the boot. The boot phrase? “Your work of art didn’t work for us.” Meh, it’s not the worst I’ve ever heard.