Weird and cool 'Touching the Art' series heads to Art Basel

Ovation TV's 'Touching the Art' will be on the scene at Art Basel. A second season is also in the works

Utter the words "TV show about art" and chances are that you'll think harp music and agreeable nuns. But "Touching the Art," the online series created by the Ovation network, has ditched the public television formula for something edgier: a round-table hosted by artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison that asks all the big questions about art — "Is art evil? Is the Internet dead? Why is everything so pomo?" — and attempts to answer them in less than eight minutes.

The show, which was launched over the summer on Ovation's YouTube channel, has just gotten a green light for a second season (which will start airing sometime in early 2015). In addition, Ellison and the program will be part of the third iteration of the New Museum's triennial exhibition of emerging artists in New York in February.

As if that isn't keeping everyone busy enough, this week, Ellison and the Ovation crew will be in South Florida for Art Basel Miami Beach and the related cluster bomb of fairs, events and poolside parties. 

"Hopefully we'll be doing something fun and weird and cool," says Ellison. "I've never been to Basel. It's probably going to be insane."

"Touching the Art" occupies an unusual space at the intersection of art and entertainment. It's not the sort of program that is ever going to explain the history of French impressionism. (You'll have to turn to Sister Wendy for that.) Nor is it just a room full of theoretical types quoting Jacques Lacan. (Zzzz. Thud.)

Instead, it's a humorous "McLaughlin Group"-style send-up of some of the hot topics being debated in the art world right now. (Seriously, "The McLaughlin Group" is a point of inspiration for both the host and the producers.)

In it, Ellison — feigning cluelessness in a seductive shade of inky purple lipstick — grills a panel of guests about subjects such as the relevance of art school, the objectification of women and the possible meanings of the phrase "post-Internet." The guests have been pretty high-profile: photographer Catherine Opie, installation artist Andrea Bowers and gallerist Mara McCarthy of The Box.

Shaw Bowman, who serves as the general manager of digital media at Ovation, says the show is an attempt to create something with humor that is broadly appealing — and to do it all while remaining relevant to an art world core audience.

"I think previous attempts to do this, like 'Work of Art' on Bravo, those fell flat because they didn't stay true to what makes the topic exciting to insiders," he says. "So when we got together, we really wanted to focus on creating something that stayed true to the art world."

Hence, the deadpan Ellison making funny art-geek pronouncements ("post-net is so annoying to say out loud") and asking totally loopy questions about things like race: "Are there so few successful nonwhite artists because the art world is racist or because people can’t talk about art unless they’re racist?”

As host, Ellison plays both insider and outsider, someone who is familiar with the ways of the art world, but who is also puzzled, amused and repelled by them. This comes out of her own singular professional background.

Ellison is an artist — she makes surreal animated renderings of herself accompanied by disjointed, self-deprecating monologues — but she is also a comedian, contributing to the humorous online fashion series VFILES. (The episode about Ellison's L.A. fashion make-over is pretty spectacular.) She also does plenty of stand-up, both in L.A. and New York.

"I talk a lot about shame-based diets and I talk about being alone, being so alone," she chides. "I talk about the patriarchy too. It's pretty uneducated ranting about the patriarchy."

Which brings me to the question of the show's panelists. Throughout this first season, they have all been female. Or as Ellison put it at the beginning of Episode 3: "As always, we’re aggressively female on this program. And I get off on that."

Bettina Korek, who runs the L.A. arts group ForYourArt and who has served as a consultant on the show, helping wrangle guests, said the all-woman line-up started as a coincidence.

"It happened organically," she says. "That wasn't the intention in the beginning. But most guests on talk shows are men, so I'm satisfied with what we're doing. We've talked about having male guests, but we haven't gotten around to it."

Ellison is less diplomatic. "If we do have male guests," she jokes, "we hope to make that hilarious, to make them feel as uncomfortable as possible." 

Either way, the show hasn't wanted for guests. In addition to figures such as Opie and Bowers, prominent installation artist A.L. Steiner has been a guest, as well as artist Kenturah Davis and New York Times contributor and former L.A. Times art writer Jori Finkel. Many others are in the works for Season Two.

Ellison's dream guest?

"Fran Lebowitz," she says right away. "I'd like to formally make the offer that if she comes on the show, she can smoke. She can do whatever she wants."

Find the entire first season of "Touching the Art" at Ovation TV's YouTube Channel.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah. And, better yet, you can follow Casey Jane Ellison at @caseyjellison.

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