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'Work of Art' goes pop

A pop-culture-themed challenge on Bravo’s highbrow (and addictive) reality show produces a bold, inspiring piece

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When Bravo launched Work of Art: The Next Great Artist in 2010, it was hard to believe that a reality show set in the art world — would we literally be watching paint dry? — would click with audiences. But the first season wowed critics and pulled in an average of 1.4 million viewers weekly, thanks to creative challenges that made the seemingly stuffy art world more accessible. Now in its second season (airing Wednesdays at 9 p.m.), the show paired up with ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY for its Oct. 26 challenge, which had the contestants channeling their inner Warhol to make a piece of art inspired by pop culture. ”[Pop art] really ties in to the fact that everything is art in its own way,” says coexecutive producer Dan Cutforth. ”There’s a dialogue between pop art and pop culture. That was what we thought would be interesting: to create pieces that made some commentary on popular culture.”

But what judges China Chow, Jerry Saltz, and Bill Powers — along with guest judge Rob Pruitt and EW’s editor, Jess Cagle, who lent his artistic opinion — got from the contestants was less conversation-starting and more literal, like a flag-and-logo montage or the Warhol-imitation Coke-can piece. What the panel wanted was something that generated chatter, and they found it in a striking ”Prop 8” billboard (named after the California proposition banning same-sex marriage) by 28-year-old Chicago artist Young Sun Han, who won the challenge.

”You don’t necessarily think of pop art as political, but when you look at [Young’s billboard], it makes a larger statement. In that way, it works in terms of creating a dialogue,” Cutforth says. To add an interactive element, Young erected wooden slabs on the back of the billboard and equipped them with rainbow-colored markers for gallerygoers to scribble their own thoughts. ”I like to know what people are thinking when they’re looking at the work,” says Young. ”Everyone has a valid opinion of what they’re looking at. When you prompt people to put their ideas out there, you get some really interesting results.”

This particular hot-button topic felt like an appropriate subject for Young, a gay man himself. ”I thought of it as an advertisement,” he says. ”During the course of the competition, I wanted to make things that [covered] important issues. I chose a pink-and-magenta palette because I wanted it to just grab your attention immediately.”

And for Young, this challenge gave him a chance to come out to his extended family. ”Coming out on the show was a conscious decision, and I’m willing to have this discussion now with people who might find out through the show,” explains Young, who says that his mother and close relatives already knew. ”I have other family members who are gay that are not out, so I’m hoping this will help [them] feel comfortable talking to their families. The show is an opportunity to be an open book and hopefully inspire other people.”

Young’s goal to infuse politics into his pieces was a by-product of growing up in Skokie, Ill., which is home to a large population of Holocaust survivors, and as a result has found itself host to numerous KKK rallies and neo-Nazi marches. ”That was an early influence — always wanting to be engaged in these stories, the politics, the news,” he says. Despite his parents’ dreams of raising a tae kwon do star, Young preferred art and went on to graduate from the Art Institute of Chicago. After traveling to London, Germany, and New Zealand to work on his photography, he returned Stateside last year to be with his parents, who were both suffering from cancer. (His father passed away earlier this year.)

Young gave viewers a glimpse at that struggle with a jaw-dropping self-portrait featured in the season premiere. In it he stands naked, covered in embryonic-fluid-like goo, next to his parents. ”It references being birthed again,” he says. ”That portrait is the last family photo I have of my dad, mom, and me when [my dad] was still alive. I felt lucky that I had the opportunity to make that portrait because if I didn’t receive that assignment, I don’t know that it would’ve happened.”

In Young’s opinion, that mainstream attention is invaluable, and not just for him. ”[The show] is an opportunity to engage the public who are watching TV, who would never step into a gallery,” he says. ”If people get inspired or interested in what they see, hopefully that’ll get them walking through the gallery doors.”

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