It was a banner weekend for visual-arts populism in Canada: Toronto’s Nuit Blanche celebrated a decade, Marsha Lederman came out swinging against the absence of arts in the federal election campaigns and CBC premiered its new filmed-in-Vancouver reality-TV show Crash Gallery, one of four arts-focused shows in its fall programming.
The set-up is simple, if amorphous. Each episode features three artists of varying disciplines (“varying disciplines” to be interpreted very, very loosely) who go through two timed rounds of competition. The show’s host, Art Gallery of Ontario director of adult programming and partnerships Sean O’Neill, assigns unconventional media (paint guns, glowsticks) and a theme (love, things that come alive in the dark). Studio-audience members watch the production of the works while milling about and drinking. They vote for the winner by painting coloured dots on a palette.
The first episode featured puppeteer Jeny Cassady, illustrator and T-shirt designer Pierre Lamielle and painter Leilani Finch. In the first round, the challenge was to create a love-themed work with paint guns; in the second round, finalists Pierre and Leilani were given a brief history of neon art and told to make something with glowsticks. Pierre won the audience over with his piece: a fruit bat wearing a Carmen Miranda–inspired hat.
After watching the show, a few of our editors—David Balzer, Caoimhe Morgan-Feir and Rosie Prata—took to Facebook to discuss the absurdity of a reality-TV show about visual art, made in Canada, on the CBC, with no judges, no cast of characters, and no prize.
David Balzer: I’ll just start by saying the fact that there’s no prize, while superficially disappointing, might make the show more interesting. Because then we’re forced to think about why these people want to do this, want to win, so badly.
And then all these bizarre issues of “why we create” and “the artist’s drive and vision” come up. That’s what piques me about all this.
Caoimhe Morgan-Feir: Yeah, one of the primary themes of the show was this idea of “creativity” as this kind of scent or force that can be bottled and released at certain times, in correct proportion.
DB: “Unleashed.” Like it’s powerful and volatile.
Rosie Prata: Sean opened by saying, “You don’t need to know anything about art to watch this show,” and then went on to say, “We’re going to see who has the most creativity under pressure,” which, accurately, has nothing to do with being an artist.
CMF: Which is likely for the best, seeing as one of three competitors was a puppeteer.
RP: And one was a chef/T-shirt designer/author of the world’s best illustrated cookbook?
DB: Sean also said at one point, “It’s up to you. Remember, you’re the artist Leilani!”
RP: My favourite Leilani moment was when they revealed the paint guns and she said, “When I see these guns, I’m just thinking…YES! This is awesome,” and I was like, “Same, same, please just let this all be over.” And that was three minutes into the show.
DB: Can we please talk about the audience member called I, Braineater?
The “Ultra Underground Artist”
CMF: He was the first character my eyes lit upon in the whole show. Sean was introducing the show, but I was just watching the strange man in the flat leather cap in the background.
DB: Me too. I don’t like the crowd voting. I want a panel of charismatic judges! And I, Braineater should be one of them.
CMF: The whole show was a paean to the extra.
RP: I, Braineater was the star. Sean was a great host, actually. Favourite Sean quote: “So, Leilani, you don’t typically work with glowsticks?”
DB: I also like the brief Marxist materialist moment where they acknowledge that Michelangelo worked with studio assistants. In this kind of flip, knowing way.
CMF: That was cute. And then Sean’s comment that there was Michelangelo and then…Pierre. And it was just the tiniest bit self-deprecating and necessary.
DB: Yes. And can we talk about the powerful semiotics of the studio audience casting votes by daubing different coloured paint on a palette?
Especially relevant during election time.
RP: Extremely awkward moment when Sean handed Pierre a palette that was wet on both sides after his win. Just so impractical in every way. Can you imagine how difficult it would have been to keep track of counting those daubs?
DB: Given the weird gadgetry on The Voice and the cross-country voting by tweet et cetera for other reality shows, this seemed conspicuously raw and experimental to me.
RP: I watched it with my mum and her comment was, “This audience is full of shit.”
CMF: It’s notable that there was no negative criticism at any point.
RP: That was bizarre. Zero! Even the greatest reality show on television right now, the Great British Bake Off, which is known for its contestants being really nice and helpful to each other, is edgier than this, and its cast is made up of mild-mannered English people making cream puffs.
DB: Someone said Leilani’s anglerfish in the second round wasn’t up to snuff.
CMF: There was one audience member who just announced, “I love your art!”
DB: Yes, that was incredible. I loved that. And then the artist, Jeny, rushed needily towards him for a hug.
What did you think of the “loft party” atmosphere, where it was like Crash Gallery was this happening on one half of the room and on the other half there were a bunch of people at a bar?
RP: It was like the people who made the show took everything that had ever worked in reality TV and did the opposite. Maybe as some sort of creative challenge?
DB: Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt…. Also let’s think about how deeply Canadian that is.
RP: It really was a perfect encapsulation of what “art” means to someone who has never encountered art in any real way. Like a caricature.
DB: I liked when Jeny, the puppeteer, decided to write on her canvas and Sean says, “Oh, she’s going to add text.”
RP: Oh man. And he joked to the audience, “Will she write ‘l’amour’?”
CMF: Yes, and the outcome was “LOVE me.”
RP: Sean was constantly trying to link what was happening to some kind of art-historical context.
DB: Hahaha, yes. Bruce Nauman as a reference for the glowsticks challenge! I loved the SODRAC credit at the end.
So many reveals. So dramatic!
CMF: Yeah, especially when the reveal is to a group of people who have stood around and watched you make the thing for 20 minutes.
RP: I really am completely flummoxed as to who this show has been made for. It could be successful as a show for kids, like Art Attack, but the loft-party atmosphere obviously means this show is being marketed to adults. Adults who like watching amateur artists fingerpaint while they drink and stand around a fake DJ.
DB: This was also a thing with Work of Art; it seems to belong nowhere, have no purpose or sense of itself. In this case, obviously you can’t make a reality television show about the artworld, such as it is, in Canada. Or the art market. Turning art into this populist sport just seems so Canadian to me. It’s like curling.
CMF: Yes. But it’s true, what’s the alternative to the populist take? Watching some gallerist try to balance their budget at the end of the month or some art-history grad working at a PR firm?
DB: Haha, exactly.
CMF: But the one easy quick fix for the program would be to have some decently responsive judges to actually evaluate the work, as it is.
DB: Yes, I totally agree. As a critic it’s hard not to see the lack of judges as reflective of how difficult it is to put forth criticism in this country.
RP: Why didn’t they try to get better artists? Why didn’t they have judges? Why is there a new cast of characters for each show, and we never get to see them develop? Less gimmicky challenges would be good as well. Like, why couldn’t they just ask them to paint a mural?
CMF: If I, Braineater is out next episode, so am I.
DB: What we need here is a strong panel of judges and then a rotating cast of guest judges, such as Tegan and Sara.
CMF: It was interesting that, when Leilani was doing her introduction and her portfolio was flashing, it was primarily lions and tigers.
CMF: Yes. She was talking about her vibrant use of colour and her idealized images. I have a theory she doesn’t know how to paint anything else. Literally no other animals, because her anglerfish was a mess. And I know she did it in glowsticks, but I strongly believe that if Leilani was asked to draw an anglerfish it wouldn’t be any better.
DB: Oh, I remember now. She made a bear too!
RP: The little illustration of her piece that flashed up before the big reveal was so much better than her actual work. Such a strange decision, like, “This is what you should pretend you’re looking at.”
DB: Exactly. I liked the little lesson on Carmen Miranda when Pierre revealed his glow-stick work.
CMF: Throughout, there was a real trend towards reading figuration in abstract work.
DB: Yes, Caoimhe, that’s true…. As it was on Work of Art.
CMF: It reminded me of when I went on a tour of the Phillips Collection with a bunch of people, and every time our tour guide asked how we felt about an abstract work, someone would be like, “It’s a rock.”
RP: I had difficulty with Jeny’s “concept-based” love-themed work. The concept was love…and the work was a giant canvas with the word LOVE on it. And she clearly got the idea for the zigzag design from the top worn by one of the audience members.
DB: That, for me, was the most hideous thing. She put “ME” in the corner “because it’s always about remembering to love yourself.”
CMF: Just Jeny, in general. Jeny was someone who would put “I’m random” in her Twitter bio. But she was very fair about missing out on the 3-D round, and that was magnanimous.
DB: Yeah, and then that dude in the toque bought her a drink.
RP: Jeny was the real winner.