Art Star Wars



Wooster St & Grand St, New York, NY 10013

Neighborhood: SoHo

A ten-foot painted head bobs down Grand Street, feet furiously shuffling from below the neck. Close on his heels are three metallic-haired 20-year-olds dressed in flimsy black sheets, cinched in a manner that make them look like punk Roman centurions. I can tell I’m getting close.

Destination: Deitch Projects gallery in SoHo.

A few days earlier I had RSVP’d for my chance to audition for the reality TV show “Art Star.” Of the hundreds of artists attending the open call at Deitch, eight finalists were to be chosen to compete in the show. The winner would be granted a solo exhibition. The race for America’s next big artist was about to begin.

March 7, 2005

By the time I arrive at 9 AM, the line is already snaking up Wooster Street, and beginning to edge up Grand. In front of me is a pretty blonde wearing a bright yellow ski jacket, the only thing resembling sunshine on this frigid winter morning. She is dejected when the squat, white-haired woman in front of her declares in a thick-as-borscht-at-Viselka Ukrainian accent that this line is only for RSVPers. Yellow Jacket Girl trudges past the gallery barricade to resume her wait in line with the non-RSVP hopefuls.

A half-hour later, the line I’m in is already to the end of Grand Street when my fellow photographer friend Dawn arrives. Dawn is the one who encouraged me to audition. She and other people have told me that I take good pictures, that I have talent, so what did I have to lose? Maybe I could hit it big? Be the next Diane Arbus? Have my own show at the Met?

The Ukrainian woman is holding a plain-paper notepad, scribbling incessantly with a black ink marker. When she’s done she holds up the page with her diminutive outstretched arms, looks over her fogged bifocals, then nods to herself—so assured is she that another masterpiece has been created. She winks and points at me, and Dawn, and smiles like someone who has done a good deed but doesn’t expect payment. Her epileptic squiggles bring to mind my 6-year-old niece Kayla.

Maybe I do have a chance here, I think.

Meantime, a gaggle of camera crews, clearly in search of flamboyant-looking contestants, scurries back and forth to film the crowd. One of them stops in front of Dawn and me just before we’re about to enter the thawing warmth of the gallery. They affix their lens and fur-covered boom on the Ukrainian woman who is scrawling another picture for her ceaseless repertoire. The two guys behind me—one who says he works in a Baltimore gallery and is “interested in multi-media” (he had contact sheets of blindingly colorful pictures, kind of like Cyndi Lauper liquefied), the other struggling to hold an immense black canvas with purple and gray representations of Buster Keaton and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” character sitting next to each other in an empty theater—go unnoticed.

Once inside the gallery, we’re all given release forms which basically inform us that once we give the gallery our artwork, we lose all rights to it. Deitch Projects could copy, publicize, and/or sell the work without giving the artist credit—“in perpetuity.” I could barely move the pen because my fingers were so numb from the cold. But I still signed. Everybody did.

We proceed to another gallery, an immense space surrounded by massive black-and-white mural paintings and mammoth-sized sculptures, where we are instructed to display our work. Camera crews follow the judges as they begin at the outer tables and work their way towards me, Dawn, and two other young women at our table—one with slides of what looks to be large balls of masking tape, the other with a disturbing fur-covered papier-mâché deer head. Suddenly I have the feeling that my five 8X10 pictures, which I thought were magnificent when I printed them the night before, now appear no more interesting than five low-grade shots from a miniature Polaroid. I get a terrible case of Cindy-Brady-freezing-in-front-of-the-illuminated-red-camera-light-at-the-Gameshow jitters. I let out a stressful sigh and try to concentrate.

My name is Ken Paprocki. I’ve been taking pictures since I was a kid growing up on the Plains of Nebraska. I would say, since I hail from the Midwest, that my photos encompass a great pathos and sympathy for alienation. Today I’ve brought with me pictures of people that I feel display moods that make one ask: Are they worried, are they sad, or are they simply pensive? I like these photos because when you look at them, you reflect on yourself and ask, Am I happy? Am I alone?

“That’s Jeffrey Deitch,” Dawn murmurs to me, as the camera crews on either side of us approach our table. “He’s the owner of the gallery.”

“How do you know that?” I ask.

“I did my homework,” she says.

While Mr. Deitch spends 30 seconds studying the slides of the masking tape balls, I mentally rehearse my lines. He surveys Dawn’s prints of a man wearing a pink, plastic Conehead mask with a distorted eye photographed around New York City. “Creepy!” says one of the guys in Deitch’s judging entourage.

“These are the Coneheads,” Dawn explains with a lambent smile. “People like the Conehead, and—” that’s it: Dawn’s four seconds of fame are over. Mr. Deitch and one cohort with a long gray ponytail, the critic Carlo McCormick, are now looking at my photos. For some reason the camera crews have stopped rolling just as they reach me and are walking away.

I look at Mr. Deitch. He looks at me. “Hi, my name is K…”

I don’t even get a chance to finish my one-syllable first name before Mr. Deitch moves on to Deer Head Woman. I didn’t even get a full two seconds. Mr. McCormick, however, pauses at my pictures a few extra seconds.

“Cool,” he says, and rejoins Mr. Deitch.

Dawn is crestfallen as she gathers her Coneheads. For my part I didn’t expect too much and that’s exactly what I got. While collecting my belongings I notice that Deer Head Woman is given a semi-finalist callback for the next day. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when I see the Ukrainian woman being consulted by one of the curators as to what time she can return tomorrow. She nods her small head, smiling widely as she hectically scribbles away in her notebook, creating yet another mélange of lines and loops.

Back outside in the icy cold I put on my gloves and notice the girl with the bright yellow ski jacket. She’s now—finally—the first person behind the barricade of the non-RSVP line. I figure she’ll probably suffer from hypothermia or frostbite by the time they look at her work. But then again, what are a few amputated toes or fingers when it comes to having a chance of hitting the big time with your artwork in New York City?

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