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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

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