Paint by Numbers
If Sarah Jessica Parker makes a surprise appearance on a new reality show, you might guess the subject to be fashion, food, or shoes. Guess again.
When executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker did show upon Wednesday night’s premiere of Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, she had a different message: “I grew up in a time when the government supported art.”
It seems light years from the WPA, and the NEA hasn’t given visual artists grants since the early 1990s. But Work of Art promises its winner more than a living wage or a one-time grant. Weekly national publicity and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum make the $100,000 prize seem like chump change. Artists toil for decades without a hint of this kind of exposure.
Work of Art provides plenty of the joys of its reality-show cousins Project Runway, Top Chef, and Shear Genius. This begins with the artists themselves. Casting is everything in reality TV. When paring thousands of applicants down to 14 contestants, you need produce a perfect mix of serious talent, fresh faces, and total crazies. Bravo delivers yet again.
Take Trong Nguyen, a serious installation artist and curator with notable shows, his own gallery, and IPhone apps in the works. Nao Bustamante also boasts—at least in her own head—a serious reputation for performance art. So far she seems to be the “Wendy” of the show. Remember her from Project Runway season one—the bitchy backbiting and inflated self-regard? “I feel like I’ve already won,” Bustamante confesses barely minutes into the show.
Peregrine Honig could just stop with her name, which sounds perfectly fabricated for artistic effect. Of course she doesn’t stop there: “I’m really into lilies and hermaphrodites,” she admits in reference to nothing in particular. Then again, you can find her work in the Whitney.
Judith Braun, the resident ex-hippy and elder artist has a penchant for pussies. Kitty-cats, that is, which feature in many of her works. This seems marginally more interesting than the iconic stars blotting out the private parts in Jacklyn Santos’s scantily-clad self-portraits.
We’re fortunate in the show’s mentor figure, the suave Simon de Pury, an international art auctioneer and collector who gives Project Runway’s singular Tim Gunn a run for his money. What an upgrade over the sweet but shockingly dull Todd Oldham on Top Design.
Even more that other competition-based shows, Work of Art has to perfect the balance of serious art and the kind of drama that draws in reality-numb viewers week after week. The challenge for this episode did just that.
Everything began with self-portraits, which is how we learn of these artist’s signature stars, pussies, and poses. The perfect twist came when the artists had to surrender their ability to control their own image. Each completed a portrait of a competitor based on the self-portraits.
It was in this challenge that the darling of the show emerged. We meet Minneapolis-based Miles Mendenhall early on and in a bathtub where begins an average day creating sequential “to-do” lists while eating a bowl of cereal and washing his hair.
Add a little OCD to Minnesota’s amazing support for art and you get a quirky, charm top contender. His eerie image, based on nineteenth-century death portraiture, made the obnoxious know-it all Nao seem beautiful and serene—even wise. It also won him the judge’s praise and immunity next week.
The judging of competition shows is a fascination in and of itself. Who’s qualified to judge art? Head judge Cat Chow claims a family of art collectors intimate with the likes of Warhol and Basquiat. The panel feels unimpressively rounded out by two gallery owners and an art critic. Andy Warhol practically invented reality TV, so why no artists? Were Cindy Sherman and Ann Magnuson unavailable?
No matter. Judging is really an opportunity for one-liners:
“I’m not responsible for your experience of my work.”
“If I personally can’t get off on it, I can’t expect someone to buy it.”
“I don’t know a whole lot about art or art history.”
“It looks to me like very nice wallpaper.”
Not a bad sign for the season to come. I found myself captivated by a show I feared would be all flash and no substance.
The relationship between Work of Art and the “real” world of art remains to be seen. Will it really find "the next great artist"? Who knows. But what this show sets out to prove is that the lucrative, publicity-drive machine of reality television competition can be harnessed to make esoteric art an engaging everyday pleasure.
After all, Sister Wendy and the good folks at PBS can’t do it all on their own.