[Bianculli here: Contributing critic Eric Gould, who's also an architect and this site's designer, is attracted to TV shows built around the elusive art of creativity. Today, after watching two episodes of Bravo's Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, he weighs in...]
The third installment of Bravo's Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist is coming up tonight (Wednesday) at 10 ET, and those of us left wanting to know more about the artistic process of designers on Project Runway haven't been left wondering too long. Help is on the way in the virtual carbon copy of the show, but this time with fine artists.
Same format, same challenges, and even a clone of Tim Gunn, marshalling the artists through the studio into the gallery for the judging. It's rewarding: we get to see real workings of modern art, maybe how to read it, find the ideas, judge whether or not they're worth a look. And, as a bonus, how a work is pulled together well, into a compelling work, or, at the other extreme, into a dead-earnest belly flop.
Work Of Art is co-produced by Sarah Jessica Parker, the second surprise from her this summer. The first, an extremely unpleasant uber-shark-jumping Sex and the City 2, is still lodged in my head. It's been weeks later, and that experience is possibly gestating into some sort of cinematic post-traumatic stress disorder I may have to deal with for years to come.
The irony here isn't in vain. Here's a little show on going deep into the soul and making a work of art, and over there a gargantuan, soulless, money-making factory. A sobering comparison on the split of art and commerce, as some of the artists reveal they sometimes don't have money for materials to work.
WOA has sixteen contestants, mostly painters, but these include an installation artist, a performance artist, a photographer, one obsessive-compulsive disorder, and one architect-turned-painter. There's a good spread of demographics here, even including a contestant over sixty, rather than the usual complement of twentysomethings.
The show is hosted by China Chow -- who, during the first show's judging sequence, wore a flattened gold flower applied to her upper forehead that led me to mistake her for Lord Marshall from The Chronicles of Riddick.
She is joined by the Tim Gunn doppelganger, Simon de Pury, the former modern art expert for Sotheby's now running his own high-end auction house. (This fulfills Bravo's apparent requirement of the suave mentor in a suit, with just the slightest affectation of speech.) Despite the obvious replication, de Pury is an excellent and knowledgeable studio critic, and there is plenty for the audience to learn from him.
The winner of WOA gets a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and $100,000 (which is usually several years income for the majority of struggling artists, so this is not an insignificant reward for subjecting oneself to the reality format).
The first two episodes have given us a quick look into the cast under the high-pressure challenges that are vintage Runway roadblocks: first asking contestants to team up and do portraits of each other (misery for the non-painters), and the next week, requiring a found object sculpture to be made from electronic junk (misery for the painters).
Similarly -- and this is reality TV, after all -- the villains in the cast are being established early. The installation artist Nao Bustamante scolds the judges -- "I'm not responsible for your experience of my work!" -- and Miles Mendenhall, the brash enfant terrible and obviously gifted multimedia artist (recently referred to in The LA Times as "the emo-hipster backstabber") calling out Week Two loser Trong Nguyen during his studio crit and blurting, "This piece is distractingly boring!"
It was in the second episode, after Mendenhall's outburst, that Work Of Art went all squirrely, and took a jaw-dropping swerve during the judging-- which was the most compelling and worthwhile part of Runway.
Jerry Saltz, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Senior Art Critic for New York magazine, is rapt with Mendenhall's gallery performance: sleeping on a bed between two (and there's no way around this) concrete assholes set on the floor. Swoons Saltz, "I loved that there was someone asleep in the art gallery; that adds just yet another layer of vulnerability that I found pretty exciting." Countered panelist Bill Powers, "You know, the fact that there were two anuses to each side, I thought that was overkill."
And presto, we are left no longer wondering why modern art is shrugged off by the public, considered incomprehensible, arcane, silly.
The only bright spot here (and it's not the orange one over Miles' bed) is that maybe, just maybe, the producers secretly mean to unmask this sort of art-world emptiness for what it is" status quo insider-ism in New York.
And are these New York heavyweights, familiar as they are with such top shelf multimedia artists as Gerhard Richter, really that taken with the kids work?? He made it plain he was exhausted and stumped by the challenge, and could only manage a piece about how tired he was... hardly visionary commentary exhumed from a pile of debris.
Well, maybe we shouldn't be turning to reality TV for real substance on art. We have Robert Hughes' seminal 1980 documentary Shock of the New, or Art: 21, a documentary series on modern artists, both having run on PBS. My main hope for Work Of Art, since it has the larger Bravo audience and it is entertaining, is that it can help disseminate serious insight into the making of art for a wider audience.
As we're told each show before the judging, "It's been said that good art is not what the work looks like, it's how it makes you feel."
We shall see how it plays out. I hope, by the end of the season, we'll get to a higher level of discourse, and not be stuck just with Miles, snuggled with carefully coiffed bed-head, asleep between two monumental assholes.