Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: "Self-Reflexive"
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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: "Self-Reflexive"

Work Of Art premieres tonight at 11 p.m. Eastern time on Bravo.

In 2004, when I first heard the premise of The Apprentice, it sounded ridiculous. I’ve always loved game shows, where victory is determined by a set of easily understood rules—even the groundbreaking Survivor got its mojo from the elegant, ironclad policy of “whoever gets the votes dies”—yet here was a show where people would win or lose by the whims of renowned egotist Donald Trump. That could never work, I figured. Game shows were a country of laws, not men, and the Apprentice format depended too much on the human element.

Of course, it quickly became obvious that a game based around that kind of subjectivity could make for a fascinating narrative. It’s a concept that Bravo soon embraced in a plethora of mostly well-produced competition shows. Still, even viewers who tolerate (and enjoy) the caprices of judging on Project Runway or Top Chef might be tentative about Work Of Art. Art is the ultimate fuzzy boundary—what with beauty and beholders and all that—so trying to choose the “best” from a diverse group of 14 artists could be pushing the subjectivity angle into absurd territory. Can an amorphous, personal idea like art serve as the core of a reality game? The premiere of Work Of Art makes a compelling case that it can.

Like all of the shows that have sprung from the Project Runway fountainhead, Work Of Art is about the thrill of the creative process—and how limitations can breed startling creativity. One great thing about this show is that such a variety of approaches are brought to bear in the contestant pool, so there’s a lot of potential to be surprised. Work Of Art has a self-taught painter working alongside a Photoshop guru; a performance artist looking over the shoulder of an interior designer. Sure, the first episode’s challenge is pretty ordinary—each artist has to create a portrait of another contestant—but it still proves engaging, because all the anticipation at this early stage is to see what type of vision each artist has (if any).

The premiere focuses heavily on Miles, an installation artist from Minnesota who claims to have OCD. His first act on arrival is to transform an alcove of the studio, with fastidious application of garbage bags and tape, into a screen-printing darkroom. When executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker makes a surprise visit to the set, Miles pretends not to know who Parker is and forces her to introduce herself, deflating her star moment. For this, he is a hero.

Miles seems detached from the other contestants, but that might just be the editing, because his supposed isolation makes for a better reveal when he produces a moving portrait of fellow contestant Nao, inspired by Victorian-era death photos. He’s an early frontrunner to claim the grand prize of $100,000 plus a solo exhibit in the Brooklyn Museum. (As a Brooklyn resident, I can confirm that’s a pretty fantastic prize.)

Nao, in turn, is the villain, which Work Of Art makes clear from the get-go. This show may have some highfalutin trappings, but it’s not afraid to indulge us with the standard reality-show character types. Nao is an obnoxious performance artist (that’s probably redundant) with outsize self-regard. “I know what you’re thinking: Maybe Nao’s a little too established for this show,” she says to a viewing audience that has never heard of her. Note that she refers to herself in the third person, which is textbook reality-show code for “despise this person.”

Other canny casting choices include Abdi, the earnest, peppy youth who paints pictures of himself fighting space aliens with Barack Obama, and Judith, an aging hippie who plays the part of Obligatory Old Contestant. The role of The Outsider is filled by Erik, a painter. He has no formal training, as he reminds everyone within earshot—sometimes as a point of pride, but usually as a lame excuse.

Erik ends up painting that clown-on-a-palette piece you see at the top of the article, so maybe there’s something to be said for art school after all. Of course, he could have used a little more help from mentor Simon de Pury, an auctioneer who does Tim Gunn-style check-ins on the artists. “It looks nearly done,” he says when he sees Erik’s piece, neglecting to mention that it also looks like a hot mess of flea-market clichés. Here’s hoping Simon gets up the courage to be a little more blunt in future episodes.

Host/judge China Chow sometimes seems vaguely irritated to be there, but for now I’ll chalk this up to typical first-episode tightness. Most of the judging panel is stiff in the premiere. Neither gallery owner Bill Powers nor art-scene socialite Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn offer any insights of note, but Bill at least shows a glimmer of charisma that might emerge as he comes into his own.

I get more of a high-society-Paula-Abdul vibe from Jeanne, who vacillates between cocktail-party platitudes like, “I’m just looking for something that intrigues me—something that confuses me, surprises me!” and non-sequiturs such as, “I was thinking you look completely euphoric, as if we’re watching you drown.” I love that Work Of Art is unafraid to poke fun at the more vapid elements of the art world.

The only judge who already seems at ease is New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz. He challenges the artists whether they end up in the top or bottom group, which gets him into a little tiff with Nao. Her portrait of Miles depends in part on a tiny photograph that, as the judges point out, a lot of viewers would probably miss. “If they’re not paying attention, that’s not my problem,” Nao says. When Jerry presses her about being defensive, Nao doubles down: “I’m not responsible for your experience of my work.”

The exchange illustrates why I find Work Of Art so intriguing. The scene is perfectly entertaining as a standard bit of scandal—she was rude to a judge! tension! dissent!—and develops the character of Nao as a pompous ass.

But it also raises an interesting question. Where does Nao’s responsibility as an artist end? I don’t think her rendering of Miles was brilliant, but I do believe she had a point—she has no obligation to make her work accessible to every imaginable viewer. Somewhere along the continuum from creation to interpretation, the “responsibility” that Nao mentions transfers from the artist to the viewer. She just happens to believe that the transfer happens earlier than Jerry thinks it does.

Work Of Art’s ability to pull double-duty with scenes like this—combining the fun bits of personal drama and comedy with more thoughtful questions about the nature of self-expression—makes it, for me, the most interesting reality series to come along in a while. While I’m looking forward to seeing what the 13 remaining artists create, I’m just as eager to see how the show’s producers sustain the conversation they’ve set in motion.

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