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TV review: 'Work of Art: The Next Great Artist' on Bravo

June 8, 2010 | 11:34 am

  Work of Art cast Andrew Eccles

Can a television series jump the shark in the first episode? Bravo's new, awkwardly titled reality-contest show "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist," which debuts Wednesday at 11 p.m., doesn't merely argue in the affirmative. The plot also gives new meaning to avant-garde, spinning off its axis before getting to the 10-minute mark.

The crucial moment goes like this. Fourteen artist-contestants were chosen after submitting self-portraits to producers, who include actress Sarah Jessica Parker. In the season opener, the artists are randomly paired off to make portraits of each other. Mostly young and unknown, they face their first challenge in a 10-week competition for the ultimate prize: $100,000, plus a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, the New York art-world's equivalent of an out-of-town tryout.

Series host China Chow stares down the nervous cast, who anxiously await details of how they will be judged on their portrait assignment.
Work of Art SJP SdP Barbara Nitke "A successful portrait," Chow proclaims, "is one that shows a viewer the inner essence of your subject, and not just their likeness." The artists collectively gulp.

I did too. Fifty years of marvelous, disruptive paintings and photographs by Alex Katz, Chuck Close, Dan McCleary, Gerhard Richter, Cindy Sherman, John Sonsini, Rineke Dijkstra and countless other first-rate artists, internationally known and not, and we're still trotting out the wheezing cliche about portraiture's required significance being bound up with the revelation of the sitter's inner essence?

Really? The 17th century lives on.

Equally disturbing: Not a single artist challenges this antique idea. These eager puppies are instead ready to hunker down and try their best to satisfy the demand of their TV patron, visions of Brooklyn dancing in their heads.

A virtual knockoff of "Project Runway," with silk-screens replacing sewing machines and paintbrushes subbing for scissors and straight pins, "Work of Art" shares that hit's production company (Magical Elves, Inc.) But it suffers from comparison to the schmatta show's glory days a few seasons back, when "Project Runway" garnered its own cult-like art-world following.

One reason "P.R." worked so well is that it juxtaposed creativity's yearning for worldly acknowledgment with fashion's magnificent frivolousness, which is central to its appeal. A viewer could watch TV, which has honed frivolousness to its own shiny art form, secure in the knowledge that none of it much mattered, except to the scheming players.

Not so with "Work of Art," which isn't as much bad as merely dull. Bad we could love; dull just sends us wandering off to the fridge, where inner essence consists of leftover meat loaf.

Chow, a model and sometimes actress, plays model and sometimes actress Heidi Klum, the show's combination host and judge. The role of Tim Gunn, kindly father figure and helpful mentor to contestants, is handled by the avuncular Simon de Pury, the Swiss-born auction-house executive.

New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz plays tough-love fashion magazine editor Nina Garcia. (You can practically hear the aspiring artists thinking to themselves: "Don't. Bore. Jerry.") Uptown Manhattan gallerist Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and downtown Manhattan gallerist Bill Powers round out the jury, taking turns evoking opinionated if slightly daffy designer Michael Kors, who knows what he likes when he sees it but can't explain quite why.

Guest-jurors are promised as the season proceeds. The regulars, however, who guide and judge what matters in art as it comes piping hot from the work-room studio, mostly occupy culture's business end. "Work of Art" is based in New York, epicenter of the contemporary art market, and hews close to the trading-house floor.

Work of Art Nao Trong Amanda Nitke Episode One is the necessary getting-to-know-you show, both for the audience and the cast. The contestants range in age from 23 to 62, but most are in their 20s and 30s. As personalities, they embody familiar, consumable profiles. There's the slacker, the pretty girl, the geek, the shrew, the neurotic, the late-bloomer, the amateur, the kook, the hipster, etc.

There's also "Project Runway" alum Parker, the bona fide TV and not-quite movie star, who pops in to say hello. Given the scathing critical reception of her new film, "Sex and the City 2," perhaps Parker  would have done better to stay behind the scenes of this vacant television piddle.

Half the contestants are painters, a high percentage given today's diversity of media. As far as one can figure from brief TV clips, they all appear to be reasonable artistic choices. But if you can't tell within the first half-hour who will be going home when the shambling 44 minutes dawdle to an end, you are definitely new to art.

And, new to reality-contest TV. Lack of talent or questionable skill is not the only determinant of who stays and who goes. There's a show to put on, so the dramatic narrative among contestants matters.

When, during judging, one exasperated artist finally talks back in frustrated response to a particularly lame set of opinions hurled the contestant's way, you ponder two things: Maybe 17th century aesthetics will fade before the season's over; and, this rock 'em, sock 'em artist will be around for upcoming episodes.

Nielsen's law: "Don't. Bore. The audience." Conflict is the not-so-inner essence of reality TV.

My astute colleague Ann Powers noted of this year's just-concluded "American Idol" that those contestants' own songwriting skills and pop musicianship were suppressed in favor of covering established hits, which the audience already knows. Ditto "Work of Art," which suffers from a similar creative muffling. Rather than making art, the cast is charged with dramatizing the act of making art.

Before the series ends, one or more of the contestants might recognize that. (It's what the academic critics call television's "performative" quality.) Perhaps they'll figure out how to meet the assigned challenges while also making art that lacerates the program's death grip on convention.

That would be something, although I'm not holding my breath. In fact, I probably won't know whether or not it happens. My DVR is broken, I'm out of leftover meat loaf and "Chelsea Lately" is on opposite.

--Christopher Knight

Follow me on Twitter @twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos: "Work of Art" cast; Credit: Andrew Eccles/Bravo; Simon de Pury and Sarah Jessica Parker; Credit: Barbara Nitke/Bravo; artists Nao, Trong and Amanda; Credit: Barbara Nitke/Bravo

Comments () | Archives (25)

I know, I know - this show does seem destined to serve up a rather large load of bullpuckey, but let's cut to the chase and look at the artists and their art, and not let the banalities overrule our judgment.
Bottom line: Anyone who says an artist won't make it by being on this show is as far out of it as anyone who says an artist will make it by being on this show. Let's hope there are a few discerning critics out there who are capable of spotting talent despite all the show-biz hoo-hah.

Lifetime Artist/Oil-Painter living below the poverty level creating Art in 54 countries with a few hundred Images in my possession out of the few thousand Oils I created am trying to keep my studio during a reccession and storage for the hundreds of Images that have no exposure due to the fact of Gallery's going out of business need a show like this to re-inforce my Basic belief system that cows ruined the planet with their farts.

seems like a great show.

I was dieing to know how they would judge the art and how they could keep it from being boring. Yes we need angry artists with talent to expose the BS on the show. Oh how I'd love to be one of them and commit career suicide. It's a shame they don't design it to be about breaking into the art world itself, a far tougher hurdle that our border fences are for a legless illegal.

And they are putting on "shows" an absurd term, as what the hell does art have to do with show biz? Alot perhaps, lets wait for the ratings. Art should never be there to entertain, to put on a show, which is exactly what critics are looking for, not work that has a living presence, that reflects life, that is of mind, body and soul. And just perhaps, this is the perfect venue, Bravo.


Loved this review! Now saved from another T.V. program I won't need to check out!

Ah, so you're going to watch Chelsea Lately instead. Good to know you'll be spending that time well.

I enjoyed the first ep of this show. I think it has potential. I don't love the choice of China Chow as the host. I feel like it follows too predictable a model from shows like Chef and Project Runway. I would have like to have seen a bit more risque choice for the host.
As for the artists. I wasn't particularly knocked out by any of them. But I guess it's realistic. I don't think a really good talented artist would subject themselves to this type of show. These are pretty much minor league talents. Trong seems to be the most accepted or renown of the group and he just about fits into every predictable boring sterotype of current art. Some of the artists were also clearly picked more for their potential to create problems and drama (i.e. the arrogant artist who uses stars to cover her naked body in her self-portraits), or to create potential feel good stories (the senior citizen artist who has always been on the fringe, the artist who has never received formal training). To resume this work of art is far from perfect but I will be in tune to see how it continues to flesh out...

Throat cut, the body still fresh - but no last breath,
no pulse to have taken away -
no blinking,
no thinking,
only stinking.

lame review, and a wordy one. Ginia Belafante in the NYTimes is much more amusing, and more charitable

who cares if China Chow's throwaway line about portraiture is old school? that's a lame thing to care about

you reveal, too, you strange familiarity with that fashion show -- could you be more interesting in clothes than in art?

that's a significant difference, as the NYT noted and you didn't -- this show is about making art, not dresses or cakes, and so is at least aiming for something higher.

You got a bunch of young artists, charming enough but not very talented (in an avant-garde sense only, there are several very good illustrators), but so what? The most striking thing about the show is that the young cast doesn't really display any of the meanness and competitive spirit that marks "Real Housewives" and such -- whether this fact will turn out to be a drawback or a distinction remains to be seen.

After seeing the 1st episode, I'm actually somewhat impressed. No, I don't see a budding Cezanne or Vermeer here, but there is a good helping of talent and the works are by and large attention-worthy. As far as a good talented artist not wanting to be on a show of this type - an artist with a strong self-image shouldn't care one way or the other, if he/she wants to do this, then so be it.

The problem I have with this is that if you read the bios of the artists, they are already established and successful
in what they do. I don't understand why they would want to be a part of a reality show which is the antithesis of originality and creative expression. When SJP showed up, it was jarring and unnecessary. In a way I felt the first elimination was unfair, because the older lady's portrait wasn't anything like a portrait but she wasn't even in the bottom. The lady who was eliminated was probably eliminated more for her mild personality than her art.

I just now watched the show off of tivo and by my pedestrian little mind- I thought it was more than decent. I do not watch reality shows as a rule, but one on art got my attention. I really like to look into the artists head to see what their thought process might have been, keeping in mind that these things are edited to fit time, ratings and opinions of "them". All in all I enjoyed it and have programmed tivo to capture the future episodes. Sarah Parker can stay behind the scene, that was the lamest portion of the whole hour.

I was hoping no artist would accomodate Bravo and show up for audition. Well, no real artist did;)

Real work of art is not produced on command, that's the biggest flaw of this whole premise. It comes from inspiration within, which, by the way, sometimes takes a long time. This is so art school, here's the subject, now paint.. Gag...

Difference is that P.Runway was staged in a school and Tim Gunn is a teacher of designers. Michael Kors and many of the guest judges are actual designers. This is not staged in an art school, freaky Simon de Pury is not a generous teacher like T. Gunn and there are no artists on the panel, so those things, which held R. Runway together are not here. It's just so randomly put together and market-driven that it's offensive to those who work in the art-world and a sad portrayal of artists as infantalized victims hoping to make money (ie a "career") to those who don't know the machinations of the art-world.

Sorry, LisaAnne, but you've missed the purpose of the show. There are no artists on the panel, because the show is meant to judge artists and their works, not to teach them. The panel members appear to be quite competent and knowledgable of the art world. Furthermore, Bravo is a commercial channel, and so I can understand (but granted, not always enjoy) the show-biz atmosphere.
BTW: All 'good' artists don't have to be starving souls, killing themselves for their art, eking out a living in cold, miserable garrets, awaiting some sort of inspiration - divine or otherwise - while shunning the slightest hint of commercialism attributed to their output.

Fantastic review -- from your kick-arse opening line -- "Can a television series jump the shark in the first episode?" to "dull just sends us wandering off to the fridge, where inner essence consists of leftover meat loaf..." and beyond.

I love your point that it's disturbing that "Not a single artist challenges this antique idea." Well, they are competing against each other, not the tired format. There's only so much room for an agitator in these heavily scripted "reality" shows.

So now I know it's just another crappy reality show that I don't have to tune in to watch.

Thanks for taking a bullet for us, Christopher!

@ Wild -- "I was hoping no artist would accommodate Bravo and show up for audition. Well, no real artist did ;)"

-- hilarious! And evidently true!

@ M. S. -- "The problem I have with this is that if you read the bios of the artists, they are already established and successful in what they do. I don't understand why they would want to be a part of a reality show which is the antithesis of originality and creative expression."

-- you make an excellent point, but aren't some of the artists amateur?

How could anyone ask why would an artist what to be on this show? Are you kidding? It’s called publicity. Any artist who what to act high and mighty might what to think back on all the stops they had to pull out to get bodies into one of their art shows.

Any one complaining that the artist on the show are too professional are living their thinking caps in the closet. Rank Beginners are not going to cut it in a competition. Would you expect a chef on a cooking show to have never been a cook?

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