‘Artstar’ on Gallery HD: The Art World Tries Realism (the TV Kind)
TO mangle a question from MTV’s “Real World,” what happens when eight artists, aged 22 to 68, are jammed together in a SoHo studio for a month, subjected to withering criticism, marched before wealthy collectors, ordered to collaborate, asked to perform (even if they’re not performance artists) and persuaded to dress up in tights for a neighborhood parade, all while being followed constantly by television cameras?
What happens, in other words, when artists stop being polite and start being real?
According to the participants in a new art-world reality show making its debut on Thursday on Gallery HD, a high-definition channel available on the Dish Network, everyone managed to remain quite real and more or less polite at the same time. “There weren’t any sort of caustic moments that I remember,” reported Virgil Wong, one of the artists. No drunken fights? No late-night clubbing? No hookups, followed by tearful breakups? No naked hot-tub parties?
There was, in fact, no hot tub anywhere near the huge studio space on the Avenue of the Americas where, late last summer, the artists were put together in close quarters to interact, create art and, the producers hoped, make compelling television in the process.
And even if there had been some communal spa equipment, the artists — most as ambitious and hard-working as any up-and-coming investment banker — probably wouldn’t have taken the time to use it. Many said the reason they decided to audition for the show, called “Artstar,” and submit to the conventions of reality television was for that precious bit of promotion that could make the difference between an art world career and a part-time passion.
“This is my opportunity,” Sy Colen, one of the artists, says in one episode. “I want people to see my art. I’ve lived alone with my art — in the basement.”
The eight-episode show is a collaboration between Jeffrey Deitch, the SoHo art dealer, and Voom, a high-definition satellite network. The producers came to the project with an odd mix of television and art experience. Besides Mr. Deitch, they include Tamar Hacker, an Emmy-winning producer who worked on the PBS series “American Masters” and has helped make documentaries about Alfred Stieglitz and Robert Rauschenberg, and Abby Terkuhle, who as founder and president of MTV Animation brought “Beavis and Butt-head” to the nation.
When an open call was issued in March 2005 for artists to audition, about 400 showed up in SoHo on a frigid Tuesday morning. They lined up for three blocks around the Deitch Projects gallery on Wooster Street for the chance — if they were lucky — to get 30 seconds of attention from Mr. Deitch or one of the critics and writers he had enlisted as judges.
Two artists camped out in sleeping bags to be first in line. An artist collective at the back of the line hid inside a huge foam-rubber head, with a cigarette the size of a baseball bat jutting from its mouth. (“Is this the line for Aerosmith tickets?” one artist inside the head asked, trying, like many others there, to mock the event while still shivering to be a part of it.)
The show describes the eight artists who were eventually chosen as unknowns, but some were a little better known than others. Bec Stupak, 29, is a founding member of the Honeygun Labs collective, which has drawn a lot of attention for creating the videos in the psychedelic installations of Assume Vivid Astro Focus, also known as Eli Sudbrack. (Mr. Sudbrack’s work, often collaborations, was in the 2004 Whitney Biennial.)
Mr. Wong, 32, has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant and had a short film accepted by the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. And Mr. Colen, though not known in the art world himself (he was a social worker for more than 30 years before retiring and making what Mr. Deitch describes as “driftwood beatnik sculpture”), is the father of Dan Colen, a sought-after young artist whose work is in this year’s Whitney Biennial and in an exhibition now at Deitch Projects.
In a recent interview Mr. Deitch insisted that the main criterion for choosing the participants — who also include Gigi Chen, 24; Abigail DeVille, 24; Christian Dietkus, 23; Zachary Drucker, 22; and Anney McKilligan, 30 — had been the quality of the work they had hauled into his gallery that day. After all, he planned from the start to show the artists’ work in a group exhibition (which happened in February).
But he clearly also wanted a few artists who he knew had stronger potential. And he acknowledged that, in consultation with the producers, he was also looking for people who were a little telegenic, both individually and with the other artists.
“We certainly were thinking about that,” he said, “and who would have a personality that would project.” But he added: “It’s not that different from the way we look at artists who we want to get involved in the gallery. It’s the whole personality. And generally people who, in their way, have a very distinct personality are often the more interesting artist.”
The challenge for the producers, Mr. Terkuhle and Ms. Hacker said, was to find a way to film people making art so that it would not feel like watching paint dry, while also not relying too heavily on the clichés of reality television.
So the artists — like participants on “The Apprentice” or “Project Runway” — were given a forced march of activities in addition to making their individual works. And these mandatory extracurricular events were filled with some of the movers and shakers of the New York art world.
The artists visited Yvonne Force Villareal, the chic art consultant and founder of the nonprofit Art Production Fund. They were taken to the lavish, art-filled Time Warner Center apartment of Tobias Meyer, the director of Sotheby’s contemporary art department worldwide, and his partner, Mark Fletcher, an art consultant. They chatted with Jeff Koons and, not coincidentally, with some of Mr. Deitch’s artists, like Ryan McGinness, Steve Powers, Jon Kessler and Kehinde Wiley.
They had to create performance art pieces. (Mr. Colen, no performance artist, simply told a story about once helping his son pack.) They also had to work together to build a float for the SoHo Art Parade and dress up to participate in the parade, a stunt that precipitated perhaps the closest thing to actual reality-show drama in the show, said several artists, who thought about rebelling.
“There was a lot of bickering about it,” Ms. DeVille said. “I mean, come on, a parade?”
Mr. Colen, under protest, ended up dressing as a birdman, wearing his wife’s old dancing tights and a mask with a beak. “I’m not accustomed to wearing tights,” he said dourly.
Mr. Wong, whose art plays with the idea of medicine and science gone awry, said the producers and camera people had been merciful for a reality show: no hidden cameras or constant surveillance. “I recall taking a quick nap and waking up with the camera right in my face as I was regaining consciousness,” he said. “So there were some moments like that, but not many.”
Asked whether — in true reality tradition — there is a winner chosen at the end of the show, Mr. Deitch grew vague. But at his gallery recently he showed off the large, wildly inventive collage-type work of Ms. DeVille, a Bronx native who is now a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and said that her work had matured more than any other artist’s in the show. Through his connections the work sold at the February show for a modest five-figure sum to a Belgian collector.
Ms. DeVille, who had to drop out of school for three years to work and was having a rough time before landing on “Artstar,” said she had never been all that crazy about reality shows, but that she had a new appreciation for them now.
“I was kind of giving up on my work before,” she said. “I was just working as a messenger. I think I even delivered to Deitch before.”
Despite the bird costumes and the occasional outbursts of artistic temperament, Mr. Deitch said that that the show would probably end up feeling more like PBS than MTV, and that he’s happy about that. On the Dish Network, which has 12 million subscribers, the show joins other mostly cerebral art programming on the Gallery HD channel, including programs about Titian, the painter Philip Pearlstein and the influence of the Saatchi Gallery in London.
“I wanted it to be about how young artists enter the art world, how they make the transition from being unknown with a lot of ambition to being known artists who have a profile in the art community,” Mr. Deitch said. “I was always advocating moving it as close to a documentary as we could, so that people could watch this and learn a lot about what an artist is today.”
He and the producers are cagey about exactly what happens over the course of the show’s episodes, trying to preserve some of the surprises. The artists have also been asked not to reveal too many details. But in interviews, a rough outline emerges that casts Mr. Colen as the Richard Hatch — albeit clothed — or at least the Rudy Boesch of the show’s contemporary-art island, and that tends to make Ms. Stupak, because of her already-established art connections, something of a diva. (Mr. Deitch said he broke the rules of the show by deciding to give Ms. Stupak and her collective their own exhibition at his gallery in January.)
Ms. McKilligan, a Brooklynite who goes by the art name Anney Fresh, ends up shouting at Mr. Colen in a scene that she describes as “probably the high point of the show, emotion-wise.” She also has problems with Ms. Stupak, whom she castigates once on camera for taking too long to glue feathers to her eyebrows.
“She dropped the ball on a lot of things because she wasn’t a team player,” Ms. McKilligan complained in an interview.
But she agreed with Mr. Wong that for hardcore reality-show fans with low interest in out-there contemporary art, the show probably provides little to feast on. “I thought it really could have been a much more exciting show,” she said. “I kept trying to whip people up.”
“And unfortunately,” she added, “there was no romance either. Three gay men and an old man? Not exactly a lot to choose from.” Autor: RANDY KENNEDY