"Gallery Girls" Recap: Bravo's Potemkin Art World Reality Soap Pits Randy Hipsters Against Uppity Heiresses

Gallery Girls Claudia Martinez, Chantal Chadwick, and Angela Pham
(Photo by David Giesbrecht/Bravo)

If you hadn’t seen the promo for Bravo’s “Gallery Girls,” and you tuned in tonight, you would probably assume that you had sat on the remote and changed the channel to some long-forgotten cycle of “America’s Next Top Model.” Maybe you didn’t even make it through. If that’s the case, then here’s what you missed. If you persevered, on the other hand, then here’s what we thought. This is our very-thorough “Gallery Girls” recap:

ACT I: Meet the Gallery Girls

The show proper opens with a slender Asian model clad only in a towel and Kabuki makeup. Cameras are flashing. The disembodied voice of an Australian photographer says, “Oh, my God. This is so incredibly ‘80s right now.” The voice belongs to David Schulze, who asks the model if she is OK with posing topless. The question barely escapes his lips when the model obliges and the viewer is treated to a brief view of flesh-colored squares. Meet Angela, an aspiring photographer, sometimes waitress, most-of-the-time model, and self-proclaimed “complete narcissist,” the wayward daughter of stereotypically tight-ass Orange County Asian doctor parents who left home to proudly fly her freak flag in Brooklyn. 

Next, we meet Kerri, whose Bar Rafelli cheekbones are rivaled by her Long Island-grown naïveté. Kerri and her mom are having a rough time schlepping a mattress up from their van to Kerri’s new West Village walk up. It’s a not-very-subtle metaphor for Kerri’s solid middle-class work ethic and her steep uphill climb towards art-world relevance. Kerri who has worked as a lifestyle manager for the super-rich, visited Europe, and seen some art there, explains that combining her love of art and her love of helping the 1 percent would lead to the “perfect package.” 

Uptown, Amy is taking a bubble bath whilst talking to her dad on the phone. At 24, she has the look, demeanor, and gravelly voice of an overgrown sorority girl. She lives on the Upper East Side, loves boys in sweater vests, and her daddy, who pays the bills and allows her to go out, party, and meet new people, as well as to work for free as an intern.

On the lower east side, we meet Chantal and Claudia, who are accidentally/on purpose getting high off floor polish while setting up for the opening of their fashion boutique-cum-artsy trinkets emporium, “End on Century.” Claudia explains that she used to intern at Gagosian, but decided the blue chip art gallery scene wasn’t “her jam.” Props to Claudia. Chantal, a squirrely waif in charge of the fashion/merchandise side of the enterprise, loses her shit over a piece of amorphous, nubby knitwear that seems designed to unflatter even the most Olsen Twin-sized of wearers. “If someone spills wine on this, I would just die?” she says, stealing Rachel Zoe’s catchphrase and turning it into a question. It becomes apparent, in fact, than Chantal has a special proclivity for turning all declarative statements into lilting, narcotic interrogatives. With her whimsical non-sequiturs, perpetually-stoned demeanor, and cabernet-colored lips, she’s poised as the show’s manic pixie nightmare girl. She will inevitably drive poor, hardworking Claudia fucking crazy. But all’s well for now. The girls keep saying the words “sparkle pockets” and giggle. Fade out. 
Meanwhile in Soho, we meet Liz, 24, spawn of megacollector Martin Z. Margulies (“Marty” to friends). She is “really excited” because today is her first day interning at the legendary Eli Klein Fine Art, an art gallery known for specializing in Chinese art, selling Lucy Liu’s paintings, and — most of all — for appearing on this Bravo reality TV show. “I got the job because my dad is a major collector,” Liz explains, with what could sympathetically be called ‘refreshing honesty.’ Eli, who chews the scenery as the show's greasy art dealer villan, is putty in Liz’s French manicured hands, and after some negotiating about her internship duties, the segment ends with Eli going out to fetch Liz a small macchiato. Now that's interning in style!

By this time in the show, there has been little to no mention of art or artists. We’ve seen bucket loads of class warfare (between the uber-rich and the kinda-rich), daddy issues, and pixilated nudity, but, alas, very little art. But hark, the show resumes at Accola Griefen Gallery (a real art gallery where I've actually seen and reviewed a show!) in Chelsea. The words “collage,” “medium,” and “emerging” are tossed around. But then we meet a pretty, prim-looking brunette named Maggie, a trust fund baby who has interned for Eli Klein for the past three years. She conveys this information with a pained smile, pretending that this isn’t one of the most depressing sentences ever uttered in the first world. Here's the drama: Maggie feels mistreated by Eli, so — rather than quitting and finding a different internship or (sacre bleu!) getting an effing job — she instead decided to simply not show up to her internship for three weeks. (Apparently, Eli once told her that Eli Klein Fine Art was the only gallery in New York that specializes in Asian art, a hilariously disprovable lie.) Maggie clearly suffers from a bad case of Stockholm syndrome because her master plan is to show up at Eli’s opening, bat her eyelashes, and flip her hair until she wins her indefinitely unpaid internship back.

ACT II: The Gallery Girls Go to a Gallery

The game is set! All of our players converge at the Eli Klein opening in Soho, i.e. the pulsating hub of the New York art world. Han Yajuan’s kawaii cupie doll paintings do double duty as a supercute backdrop for the social drama that unfolds. Liz pulls out the proverbial big guns, bringing her dad Marty to the opening. Maggie shows up and awkwardly tries to flirt with Eli by touching his arm, telling him he looks “spiffy.” Amy shows up drunk. She’s the only person who seems to be having a good time. Liz calls her a certified “ass-kisser” behind her back. It is revealed that the two have been frenemies since their diaper days.

Cut to downtown. Chantal, Claudia, and Angela bond over their love of funereal clothing while getting ready to crash the ultra-exclusive Eli Klein Fine Art festivities, Brooklyn-style. Then they head to Soho, where they are treated like the weirdo rebel pariahs they want to be. Maggie is pissed at the “End of Century Girls” because they sometimes get red lipstick on their own teeth and because they once made her play slap-shots six months ago at a party. Sinister-looking B-roll plays (they actually have B-roll of the girls playing slap shots — that's how real this reality TV show is!). “What is the appeal of slapping someone in the face after they take a shot?” Maggie wonders aloud. “It’s cause they’re from Brooklyn,” she says, answering her own question. 

Now the Uptown girls and “End of Century” crew meet and New York stereotypes collide. Everyone spouts platitudes about each other with seasoned “Real Housewives” bitchiness. At the afterparty, Amy downs shots of wine and makes garbled, oblique remarks her sexual past with Eli. Maggie is incredulous, grossed out, and kinda jealous. Later that night, Angela and the Aussie photographer (remember him?) bond over soup dumplings and jpgs of her nude body. Angela refuses to call their date a “date” because she believes the term is obsolete and they are “too cool” for such staid social conventions. Really, though, she doesn’t want to get rejected. So there's a vulnerable side to oversexed Angela. Good to know.

ACT III: The Gallery Girls Get to Work

Some incalculable time later, Kerri does her best sartorial approximation of Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman" and lands an internship with art advisor Sharon Hurowitz, to the dismay of Amy, who already works for her. It is a small art world after all. Kerri tells her new boss that she wants to work in boutique hotels, but lacks the art background (oh dear…). She and Amy are forced to share a cubicle and cross-reference Terry Winters prints all day long. Meanwhile, at a random coffee shop, "End of Century" duo Chantal and Claudia are sparring over money problems. Claudia has $15,000 invested in the gallery and is worried that they are squandering their money. Chantal has a different business philosophy, which involves looking at glitter pockets and sprinkling pixie dust in the goth-romantic dreamworld of her own making.

Meanwhile, Maggie returns to Eli Klein, tail between legs. She wants her internship back, but meekly suggests that she can’t keep working for him for free indefinitely. Eli responds that he only asks for a 30-day commitment from his interns. On the verge of tears, Maggie whispers, “I’ve done this since college.” For one pregnant, profoundly uncomfortable moment, the sad, exploitative scaffolding of their relationship is temporarily exposed, and the show has some real soul. It is by far the best moment of the show so far, a momentary break in its glossy artifice. It’s the 21st-century incarnation of master/slave dialectic, where both parties become conscious of their inextricable, condependent connection. Eli thanks her for her hard work and dedication; and Maggie agrees to come in on Monday.

ACT IV: The Gallery Girls Go to Another Gallery

Tears, hysteria, and offbeat sartorial choices pave the way to the much-awaited and episode-ending “End of Century” opening. Chantal slips into an awesome peach Samantha Pleet gown with side cutouts, while — elsewhere in the rebel base known as Brooklyn — Angela and her duo of really tokeny gay best friends apply pasties to her breasts, as tokeny gay best friends are wont to do. She wonders aloud whether she looks too slutty in her sheer catsuit and stripper heels. Her friend says it’s OK because “her pussy isn’t trailor-park Britney Spears fat.” Classy stuff. The gang prays for a hot cab driver.

The “End of Century” opening is a miasma of hipster credibility. Chantal says a reporter from the Observer was in attendance, but assumes he must have been intimidated by her (we have a call out to our friends at the Observer to confirm this rumor). Upper East Siders Maggie, Amy, and Liz roll in with their meathead boyfriends. The show reaches its intellectual apex when Liz tries in vain to define the elusive and slippery term “hipster.” Then it's back to the whole Jets-Sharks/Brooklyn-UES thing when Liz and her minions receive a cold welcome from the Brooklyn girls. Claudia quips that the bro-y boyfriends of the UESers could eat Chantal's twiggy Williamsburg-issue boyfriend, Spencer, as a snack. This is funny and also true. Team Upper East Side feels jilted and bounces. Poor, henpecked Claudia is still harping on about the money, while Chantal, her eyes at half-mast, flits around the gallery wearing a veiled hat. If the gallery doesn’t work out, she will fly to Key West and hire a raft to Cuba, she muses. “See you Fuckers,” she hollers and she skips down the street. These people are great!

Our takeaway from the first episode? Bravo’s eponymous gallery girls teach us next to nil about art or the contemporary art world, instead obsessing on the para-artistic social politics of neighborhoods, clothes, and New York's self-imposed caste system. Maybe the show's producers, Magic Elves Inc., couldn't conjure up any professional gallerinas or gallerinos willing to participate. Or maybe the televisual art world that these socialities, scenesters, and starry-eyed perpetual interns inhabit makes for better ratings. This alternate universe of "Gallery Girls" is a bastion of glamour and fantasy in an ultra-competitive, recession-burdened economy, a mere scrim for the parties, posturing, and the self-indulgent personality politics of trust fund babies with nothing better to do. It’ll be fun, though, to watch these anxieties play out on screen, so — hopefully — we don’t play them out ourselves. Stay tuned!