Assemblage Line

Rhonda Lieberman on Bravo’s “untitled art project”

New York

Left: Artists Katya Usvitsky and Sean Noyce. Right: Artist Jo Owens Murray. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)

ON A SUNNY SATURDAY MORNING IN JULY, the art-world version of A Chorus Line (“I hope I get it!”) snaked around the streets surrounding White Columns in the West Village. Hundreds of artists—each “one singular sensation”—showed up to an open call for the “untitled art project” now casting by Bravo. Sarah Jessica Parker’s production company is teaming with Magical Elves (Top Chef, Project Runway) to do for contemporary art what those other shows have done for food and frocks. All morning (some arrived at 1 AM), the slow-moving line maintained its crazy length as latecomers arrived and replaced the early birds. (A total of twelve hundred had already been screened in Chicago, Miami, and LA.)

Instead of hoofing and singing, they schlepped portfolios, laptops, and samples of their work. One toted a life-size painting of himself as Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows. The “Walking Art Museum” lady was an adhesive gabber from “near Philly. For now. I’d love to be here. I need to divorce my husband and find a rich guy,” she chuckled with Phyllis Diller–like bravado. She’d hauled her objets on the subway: A pink plastic scooter bore a mirror and trinket-encrusted mannequin torso, plus other items festooned with mirrors, faces, beads, and doll parts. A live topless chick in a G-string was a painting in progress—and a cheesy attention-getting device—for the chap who intently daubed away at her in blue while she passed out his business cards.

Along with the oddballs, the outsider naifs, and the boring juried-art-show types (both representational and abstract), there were a handful (among those I randomly chatted with) who had something going on. A cute young couple from Brooklyn were there, hoping—like everyone else—to quit their day jobs: She was a Russian-born “subversive knitter” (and graphic artist by day); he was from Utah and made “satirical portraits of Mormon patriarchs” that were a bit Peter Saul–esque. From Boston, a wit who had answered “Scott” on the questionnaire when asked to describe himself in one word had an equally apt business card: I PAINT ASTRONAUTS AND SOMETIMES, DINOSAURS. Which he did, quite amusingly.

Left: Artist Scott Listfield. Right: Casting director Nick Gilhool.

As I scanned the line, the sight of all that hopefulness, vulnerability, and probable rejection was poignant. Rejection happens all the time in the art world, but it’s rarely so visible. Like puppies in an art pound, everyone made eye contact, eager to pitch: It was a primal display of “putting yourself out there” denuded of any social foreplay. As someone who identifies too well with people about to have their bubble burst, I marveled how actors have to do this all the time.

“You should do it as a piece,” said photographer Ryan McNamara’s friend when they heard about the show. “Hmm, a piece about being a fame whore . . . Isn’t that already built into being an artist?” he riffed.

Were they looking for good artists or for people who’d make for good reality TV? A self-aware person’s not going to be a clown, and cluelessness and telegenic meltdowns are key to the genre. In a brief chat, casting director Nick Gilhool emphasized that they are indeed going for art-world cred here: They’re involving “art professionals and luminaries whose names you would recognize. It’s kind of a cloistered community, and we’re bringing that into kind of a pop-culture setting.” When I wondered how this would translate for TV, he observed: “If you have some legs (as an artist) you’re gonna be an interesting person—that sort of takes care of itself.”

Left: Artist Lulu Joli. Right: Artist kHyal.

Most details about the show are either top secret or not yet decided. We do know that auctioneer Simon de Pury will be one of the “art-world luminaries” involved, and taping will begin this fall. Each applicant filled out a probing questionnaire that was like a year’s worth of therapy in thirteen pages (“What would someone close to you describe as your best and worst traits?” “What makes you nervous?”); a draconian nondisclosure agreement would demand one million dollars–plus for any breach of confidentiality. Press was forbidden to approach anyone after they’d been screened or G-d knows what would happen. The psychic root canal of the questionnaire plus potential financial penalties mingled fond hopes of Cinderella-like art stardom with a Foucauldian whiff of disciplinary regimes and clinics. Nevertheless, the mood was upbeat, if slightly abashed, on the line, buoyed by the random camaraderie of mutual vulnerability and the subterranean buzz of ambition, however insane.

Most were philosophical: “Just another thing, another marketing thing,” said another “encruster,” an ex-model from Bridgeport. “Life is a spectacle to begin with, so why not?” mused a photographer who’d flown in from Dallas. One applicant, Lulu, was so certain she’d be picked she’d already quit her job working with seniors. A warm gal exuding a “school of hard knocks” vibe, she came in on the bus from Boston the night before. From a bulging black portfolio, she pulled several framed portraits of women. “This one’s for the Jews.” She eyed me intently as I wondered if I’d heard her right: “My Holocaust piece.” It depicted a gray hand on a plump, flesh-colored breast: “The hand of Germany. Black and white. Cold and dead. The breast represents life.” Oy. “One singular sensation,” indeed.

The line around the corner from White Columns.

Left: Artists Erica Felicella and Tammera White. Right: Artists Dezi Sienty and Michael Shankman.