Finally, the second season of Work of Art: The Next Great Artist has arrived on Bravo, and with it, the Sucklord. Work of Art must have thought it died and went to heaven when this guy strolled in, disfiguring stormtrooper dolls and calling it art. The Sucklord – real name: Morgan Phillips – is a 42-year-old artist/huckster in the tradition of Jeff Koons who looks a bit like Jimmy Fallon doing an impersonation of a gelled twit. With this guy around, everyone becomes an inadvertent comedian. When another contestant, Michelle, said in the opening moments, “I don’t want to be the one who sucks” – well, Lordy, supply your own just-look-to-your-right punchline.
The first challenge of the season was to take a piece of kitschy, garage-sale amateur art and “transform it into something that has your own style in it.” This was a poor choice to start off the series, since it actually raised more art questions than it asked. Work of Art invited us to sneer at an array of sentimental sculptures and near-outsider-art paintings as, as various contestants said, “junk” or “garbage.” Only (wouldn’t you know it) the Sucklord appreciated this stuff on its own terms – as expressions of genuine passion on the part of untalented but sincere artists. Or as the Sucklord said of his choice, a garish painting of The Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf, “This picture is already perfect.” And it was, on its own stunted terms.
We were able to get a fix on some of the 14 artists on the basis of a combination of the challenge, the show’s introductory filmed bios, and the artists’ catty comments about one another. For instance:
• Jazz-Minh was raised on a “hippie commune” and is therefore pegged as a ditzy free spirit; beware of countercultural stereotypes.
• Bayete chose a painting of Scarlett O’Hara and chose to make an African-American mirror image of the Southern belle; he glued dollar bills around the canvas and tried to pass it off as an example of “cultural hybridity.”
• Lola is “this sprightly sexpot,” said one opponent. In other words, this season’s Jaclyn Santos. They wish.
• Kathryn, who in her own time makes three-dimensional gush that looks like bloody cow intestines – excuse me, “visceral tableaux out of dough and jelly.”
• Tewz, the “street artist” seen spray-painting graffiti and groaning “I don’t really, like, do sculpture,” which is this show’s version of Top Chef’s “I don’t do desserts” – i.e., the what-the-hell-are-you-thinking-of-course-you’re-going-to-be-asked-to-make-some-sculpture-wise-up-jerk-and-come-prepared contestant.
• Michelle, who came on all gee-golly but demonstrated some serious paper-cutting-and-pasting chops in her intricate, sophisticated audition-tape work.
• Dusty, an Arkansas elementary-school art teacher who made a very cute self-portrait out of raised Crayola crayons to qualify for this show. I was gravely disappointed that Dusty chose as his kitsch piece a paint-by-numbers portrait of a clown that was clearly the comedian Ed Wynn, but not one person on Work of Art knew enough to point this out.
• Leon, who, I’m sorry, but given the way he was presented, will, until he distinguishes himself more, inevitably be referred to initially as the deaf artist with the interpreter.
• Ugo, the French guy who’s very good-looking but who forgot to put an H in the front of his name.
• The Sucklord explained both his choice of objet de schlock (“The Lord of the Rings is sort of a religious text for me”) and his name: “the suckiness, which is my self-deprecating, misanthropic side, and the lord, which is my megalomaniacal, self-aggrandizing side.” His biggest surprise: Some of his work has been bought and auctioned off by Work of Art “mentor” Simon de Pury. The guy’s legit. Or as legit as you need to be to live in New York City and get Simon to simper over your work.
Whoever I left out hasn’t made an impression yet.
During the final “crit” session, we were reintroduced to the judging panel of hostess-with-the-mostest China Chow, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, and Bill Powers; the guest judge was the photographer Mary Ellen Mark.
The judges were quick to decide whose piece they liked best. Michelle’s The Eternal Woodsman had a witty delicacy that contrasted nicely with the stolid piece of kitsch she personalized and “transformed.” It was a worthy winner.
In the bottom three were Ugo, Bayete, and the Sucklord. Everyone from the contestants to the judges had been dismissing Ugo’s painted drawing as too similar to work by Keith Haring. Nobody was buying Bayete’s racially charged but slapdash mess as “complex” (“Just because the topic is complex doesn’t mean your piece is complex,” sneered Powers). And the Sucklord did not help himself (but completely won me over) by responding to Saltz’s simple question about what was original about his work by answering, “Wow, you really got me there. I think I might die here.”
But as cute as he is, Ugo was dismissed from Work of Art. Personally, I thought Bayete’s piece was a tad more banal. And the way the hour was edited, the Sucklord received a greater degree of vehement criticism for his lack of originality. But Mary Ellen Mark said with equal force that the modified Gandalf “spoke” to her. (What did it say? “Look at me.”)
And thus the Sucklord was permitted to coin his own catchphrase in bidding adieu to Ugo – “It sucks for all of us” – and add with casual menace, “I’m a super-villain and better him than me.”
Is it, though? What did you think of Work of Art’s season premiere? And where do you stand on the Sucklord: Lord of the Zings, or Trying Too Hard?