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Reality Television Meets the Art World

By Steven Rosen · July 14th, 2010 · The Big Picture
There's an inherent competitive aspect to making art professionally — at some point, somebody else has to like your work more than the next person’s or you’ll never get any attention.

So, dubious as I was about an elimination-style reality show devoted to art, I had to acknowledge the premise did make sense when I learned about Bravo’s new Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. But the best surprise is that the tightly edited show is insightful about what makes contemporary art good. As such, it’s instructive both to viewers more curious than knowledgeable about it and to the artists who create it. (The show is on Wednesdays at 10 p.m.)

Sarah Jessica Parker produced it and must have made sure Bravo took the subject seriously — not a given on a channel with Real Housewives of New Jersey and Bethenny Getting Married? The judges seem well-informed, especially Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York. “Art is a way of showing the outside world what your inside world is like,” he said.

And the show has a real find — a budding media star — in the dapper, sophisticated and unpretentiously charming art auctioneer Simon de Pury, who serves as the mentor for the contestants. It also has avant-garde fashion plate China Chow as host (and judge) — one week she even wore a tutu!

The show started with 14 contestants, ranging from the young and untrained Erik Johnson to the accomplished, 61-year-old painter Judith Braun. They almost all seem to have considerable talent in figurative painting, abstract art, sculpture or photography … even performance art. Each week they’re given new challenges; the first was to create a portrait of another contestant.

And, in a telling fact, the older and/or more professionally established of the artists have been among the first eliminated.

That’s maybe because they resist, subtly or overtly, following “orders,” which a weekly challenge most certainly is. Braun, for instance, bristled at the order to create a book cover, which she considered commercial art. Her resultant piece — she spelled Pride and Prejudice backward — was a form of defiant sabotage, and she was eliminated (and spared from a subsequent challenge involving a plug for Audi).

The judges see displays like hers as ego standing in the way of risk-taking, and they’re merciless in criticizing it. They could be wrong, but they’re trying to push artists to reveal themselves yet be accessible to informed outsiders. It’s been especially interesting to see how their criticism has taught young artist Jaclyn Santos to show her body in her art in a non-exploitative way.

The most instructive episode was the challenge to create a shocking work of art, with photographer Andres Serrano (“Piss Christ”) as the guest judge. It was engrossing, yet also embarrassing, to see the young artists force themselves to try to please Serrano, a guy who has used urine, menstrual blood and — if I heard correctly through Bravo’s bleeps — even “shit” in his work.

As judge/gallerist Bill Powers observed, many defaulted to sex as their “shocking” subject matter. Serrano wasn’t surprised: “It’s not easy to shock — especially on demand,” he said. A 46-year-old performance artist, Nao Bustamante, was eliminated that week — she wore a weird, disheveled outfit that had brown, feces-like goop on it and nobody, even her, could exactly explain the point.

The winner that week, a young African American named Abdi Farah, didn’t seem intimidated by Serrano’s reputation. He made candle-sized sculptures depicting young black men as bombs waiting to explode. The shock came not so much from the piece’s visual impact as from the repercussions of its meaning.

Serrano, and everyone else, was moved.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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