By Ken Tucker
Updated July 29, 2010 at 04:22 AM EDT

The challenge for this week’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist was to create “pieces with opposing themes,” with the artists paired in teams. Abdi and Nicole’s theme was “order and chaos”; Peregrine and Mark’s was “heaven and hell”; Miles and Jaclyn’s was “male and female.”

One thing that’s making Work of Art better TV with each succeeding week is that the usual reality-TV rhythms rarely occur, and unexpected emotions arise. For instance: At the start of the hour, it sounded as though Miles was trying to manipulate Jaclyn into failing. Choosing his words carefully, he said to the camera that he hoped to persuade the frequent exhibitionist to “come up with something pretty [long pause] saucy.” A bit later, Miles was pondering “how I could get Jackie to add nudity to her piece,” and after she’d decided that doing a portrait of herself masturbating would illustrate “a woman gaining control,” Miles was gleefully congratulating himself as being “underhandedly genius.” The impression we got was that Miles assumed the judges would be tired of Jaclyn’s repeated use of her own naked form. But things changed later.

More disturbing was Peregrine’s quiet but firm insistence upon making a scar on Mark’s stomach the subject of their works. Mark said he wasn’t “comfortable with taking my shirt off for a portrait,” but he did it to be a “team player.”

Peregrine’s little coo of a voice and whimsical head gear have left the impression that she’s a harmless sprite, but this week, she condescended to Mark, pushing him to be photographed shirtless, then making a banal mockery of his body by painting over it messily and sticking cigarette butts out of the portrait as a vision of “hell.” (It was significant that her partner when she went out on the street to gather discarded cigs was Miles, who was also cruelly condescending to Mark, who was well aware of Miles’ lordly attitude toward him.)

As for Abdi and Nicole, they were just dismayingly dull. She made what one judge called a “toy,” a bit a craft-work meant to communicate “order,” while Abdi did one of his clay-modelled paintings with bright colors whose weakness, as Jaclyn correctly pointed out, was that it was part-figurative and part-abstract, and thus nothing.

Now, I know I’ve had a lot of fun these past weeks poking fun at Jaclyn’s seeming inability to keep her shirt on, but this week, I was humbled by the way her comments were edited together, and by the comments made by other men. Strung together quotes from Jaclyn included, “It’s gonna be awesome and provocative” and “My work makes me seem like an idol, almost” — harmless phrases by themselves but put together, they added to Work of Art‘s presentation of Jaclyn as a haughty minx. When mentor Simon de Pury heard her say she was depicting “a private sexual act,” his voice turned into an im-Pury leer: “It’s a pleasure to see you, as ever!” During the judging segment, Bill Powers felt it necessary, before complimenting her work, to say, “You have some other issues you’re trying to sort out about yourself.” What was this, a special edition of Work of Psychoanalysis: The Next Great Freud? There’s a complicated dance going on between Jaclyn and some of the men on this show (significantly, she hardly interacts with any of the women), and this week, it frequently seemed merely lewd at her expense.

There are other interesting subtexts going on throughout this series. For instance: Why is it that the two remaining people of color (Abdi and Mark) were not merely criticized harshly for their work but also for their inability to verbally defend it, during the same episode whose weekly “light moment” was a montage of the other contestants spouting art-school jargon, which Mark dismissed as bull?

Once again, Abdi’s weak work was spared, and Mark was sent to pack up his brushes. Host-judge China Chow made that announcement with her face streaked with tears. No explanation was given, but here’s my theory: She found Mark’s personal story about the origin of his scar, combined with the embarrassment he was put through (twice — once when Peregrine had him remove his shirt, and again when guest judge Ryan McGinness asked to see), all too much, and welled up with emotion at ejecting the guy, even if his work probably deserved the thumbs-down it received.

Miles and Jaclyn were the winners, but if Miles had hoped to come out of it the superior of the two, he failed: Jaclyn’s portrait was praised as well. With each week, the once-adorable Miles is looking more and more like a weasel. He blithely admitted he’d coveted the now-gone Ryan’s tar, and had told him it was “really hard” to work with, “so I could use it later.” And when he sucked up to guest judge McGinness (“I adore your black-light installations, man”), well — ick. I know, I know, it’s a competition, one must be ruthless; but that doesn’t mean I can’t separate the work and the game-strategy from a guy who’s increasingly shown to be unpleasant.

So what did you think? Did the right person leave the show? What do you make of Jaclyn’s presentation, and Miles’ scheming?

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