josie and the weepy artists

by marjorieingall on November 3, 2011

So last night Josie had her moment in the reality TV sun. She was one of the kid artists on Work of Art on Bravo. (This is a show exec-produced by Sarah Jessica Parker about “finding the next art-world star.” A bunch of artists with backgrounds in different media compete to win a museum show, a cover story in an art mag I’ve never heard of, and um, probably some money but I forget. There is a lot of crying. Thus far no one has bellowed, “I’m not here to make friends!” So there’s that.) Here is some behind-the-scenes scoop.

(Josie is the one in the seizure-inducing stripes, the one whose mother did not read the memo about what kids were supposed to NOT WEAR.)

So. My kids’ East Village elementary school has an amazing, tireless art teacher named Valerie Hammond. She’s part of Studio in a School, which pairs professional, working artists with educators in NYC public schools. Valerie has done astonishing work with the kids (she seems to especially rock out at getting them into printmaking) and I will forever love her for inviting Josie to be a part of a special program at Pratt Institute. For a 9-year-old to attend classes at a real art school — FOR FREE!! — and to spend time on a grown-up campus and to shoulder real expectations about her work and learn real technique — well, it’s invaluable. Our school — which has a high percentage of families who qualify for free lunch — can just barely afford to participate in Studio in a School; it’s one of the big things our PTA raises funds for. But it’s so worthwhile! Arts are the first thing that get cut in tough budgetary times, and without Valerie our kids would get no visual arts education at all! (We have to fundraise for any music education, too, but that’s a whole other megillah.) The evidence is powerful that arts education leads to greater engagement with school and to academic achievement across the board. We do our best to earn grant money to help pay for our school’s participation in the program, but the more folks know about Studio in a School and support it, the less individual schools will have to pay to participate…and for non-wealthy schools like ours, that would be awesome. So go donate to Studio in a School. Thanks!

Where was I? Oh yes, TV SHOW WITH CRYING PEOPLE ON IT. Originally there was talk of shooting the episode at school, which would have been awesome (and netted us a location fee!) but that didn’t work out. The NYC Department of Education, she is a harsh mistress. So the kids went to the Work of Art studio, which doubles as the “art gallery” the artists show in.

Josie immediately loved Lola, the artist she was paired with. (Lola apparently has eight million little half-siblings, which is what happens in Los Angeles. So she’s great with kids. To their faces, anyway.) The artist ALL the kids loved was The Sucklord, who was super-friendly and warm and told them all to call him Morgan. (Most of them did not know he was The Sucklord until they saw it on TV. The cameras captured the one time The Sucklord introduced himself to Reynie as The Sucklord, but that was because she was holding the piece of paper she’d drawn from the hat that said she was partnered with The Sucklord. Sucklord, Sucklord, Sucklord. After that initial Sucklordian scene for the cameras, he was Morgan.) Josie reported that the artist who was least interested in talking to the kids was Bayete, but that basically they were all nice and seemed sane. None of the kids had any idea who SJP was. (You can see their politely baffled places in the clip as they’re clapping at her entrance.) Sex and the City has not trickled down to 4th graders, not even in the NYC public schools.

I was pretty charmed by Lola — she seemed very bright, level-headed, aware that TV is not real life and clueful that she was playing a role. (And weeks later, OH HOW WE DID LAUGH.) I did a little Googling when we got home from the taping. Her mother is Lyndall Hobbs, who was a gorgeous girl-about-town of the ’70s, an Aussie-born journo/filmmaker/interior designer/Al Pacino girlfriend. Lyndall’s blog is full of amazing pix of her posing with Andy Warhol, Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski (!). There was a great piece in Vogue a while ago about Lyndall’s history among the glitterati, including a pic she took of Karl Lagerfeld with Michael and Tina Chow (parents of Work of Art hostess China Chow, who is an absolute ringer for her beautiful, tragic mother). GLAMOOOOOOUR! There’s also a pic of teeny-weeny Lola, posing with her mom and Madonna in the 90s. Lyndall claims that Madonna stole the idea of naming her kid Lola.

But back to Work of Art: The Next Great Work of Working Artists Work in Redundant Work Word Use Work Work. Josie’s first response to the taping was distress at learning that reality TV is not so real. Many of the kids’ works were actually done by groups of kids working together, but were attributed to one kid. Josie was horrified at the injustice and inauthenticity of this. Dude. Welcome to TV.

The kids filmed for two days — one day meeting the artists, and the next day hanging out at the “opening.” This is not news, but man, no wonder reality show contestants are constantly breaking down in hysterics. They work constantly and don’t SLEEP. Plus there was no food at the “opening,” which took HOURS, only wine. Glug glug.

At the “opening,” Josie walked around with Lola assessing the other artists’ pieces. (Lola tried to get her to spy on the judges, but she wouldn’t do it.) For me, not knowing any of the stories behind the work or who any of the characters were, the most emotionally resonant piece, by FAR, was The Weeper’s. The one the judges loathed! I found it very moving and thought-provoking. I thought Sara had deliberately made it tiny, while Zelda’s version was big, because she was saying that her own world was so cramped and circumscribed; she was responding to an effusive, joyful piece with the opposite of that. The triptych was really beautiful up close — they didn’t show it! A little girl in a cage, a roiling sea, a child’s perception of a fractured marriage, a big scary pregnant belly — it had this fragmented, chaotic, confused childlike feel, with the big repeated words in the boxes anchoring it. I did not agree with the judges’ charge of narcissism, unless all art is narcissism. This artist told a story, and it invited the viewer in and raised questions instead of pushing the viewer away and providing all the answers.

(Seeing myself on TV, I had to laugh at this pretentious-looking thick-black-glasses-wearing doofus asking her child so sincerely, “Do you know what an affair is?” as we looked at The Weeper’s piece. I sounded like Peter Graves in Airplane saying “Joey, have you ever been inside a Turkish prison?”)

My least favorite piece, by far, was by the guy who was eliminated — that big cement “GROW” was just EMBARRASSING and literal and dopey. Very Fresh Beat Band in its fake-streetness. I had this visceral reaction to it. I was angry at it. But I also disliked the piece by the guy who came in second, the art teacher who seems like a lovely human being. That wood slab with its opening doors seemed completely obvious; it was shaped EXACTLY like the kid’s work, and there was nothing very intriguing behind any of the doors. I also didn’t like the piece that won — for those of us who didn’t see Alana flopping around on the carpet and telling a long, elaborate story about a girl eating everything and dying at last from a carrot, the piece seemed showy and baffling — uh, the kid made a picture of a FUCKING CARROT, why did you draw a girl full of feathers and bones and disgustingness? That said, yeah, great technique. But feh. In a previous episode they criticized an artist for doing a piece that required all this backstory to be meaningful to the viewer. Why reward that exact same flaw now?

Again, not knowing anything about the characters, I loved The Sucklord’s piece! Remember, I didn’t know his schtick or the judges’ supposition that he’s a one-trick pony. I found the work to be awesome and savvy. The contrast between the lumpen kid-project-craftiness of the tree and the molded prefabness of these hidden Boba Fett and Batman and toy soldier figurines felt fun, and searching for all these concealed little toys felt participatory and treasure-hunt-y and also a tiny bit ominous, since some of the figurines were weird and off-putting. It really did seem like an adult’s meditation on childhood’s playfulness and secrets, in the best way.

Meanwhile, back at home, Josie blanched when she heard her idol Lola tell the camera, “Josie’s art isn’t inspiring to me.” As my loyal friend Kate put it, LOLA IS DEAD TO US. (I’m mostly kidding. Josie got over it fast, and reality TV isn’t real, and Lola really was quite sweet to Josie throughout taping, and Simon de Pury liked Josie’s work better than Lola’s anyway so SUCK IT LOLA. Oops, did I say that out loud?)

That’s pretty much it. Josie is still rooting for Lola. I wish everybody well. I am full of love and charitable feelings. Remember, support Studio in a School!

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