A Work of Art on Bravo

Art Gets Its Own Reality Show

By: - Jun 16, 2010


The age of reality television has been nothing short of culturally oppressive and leaves a great void and deception of what reality really is for many people. Are we so bored with ourselves that we need to scrutinize and obsess over other peoples "realities?" I think the answer is clearly obvious, those who can't do watch reality TV. Bravo has been the leading manufacturer of successful reality TV that has been saturated in the cultural sector.

My introduction to this world started with a highly successful and even enjoyable season one of Project Runway, a reality fashion competition that pits overly animated and ambitious emerging designers against each other for the shot at being "the next big thing," in the fashion world. As host Heidi Klum consistently reminded us, "in the fashion world one day your in and the next your out." Ultimately this idiom also applies to the whole genre of this entertainment, people will become bored and then it is on to the next one. Bravo's lineup of socio-cultural "reality" also includes or included: Top Chef (a similar format to Project Runway translated to the food industry), Shear Genius (a version for hair stylists), Top Design (an interior design version which was short lived due to low ratings), and I am sure I am leaving a few out because every season a new one seems to formulate and I don't even watch more than an hour of TV a week.

In addition to the competitive shows, they added "reality" shows that pry into the social factions of American culture like the obnoxious Real Housewives series, the useless Millionaire Matchmaker, and Kell on Earth (a show that follows the daily activities of a PR firm and their personal drama) which is infuriating and it definitely feels like we are getting ripped off if this is considered TV worthy. 

A Work of Art is the latest tragedy to happen to the New York Art World and strengthens the argument that there really aren't too many good things on TV. Last week Bravo premiered a show that would take their same tried and true format and apply it to the art world. Work of Art is the attempt to make the mainstream art world accessible to the masses that would probably never leave the house to go to a museum or gallery in the first place.

At least now the culturally nihilistic can have the impression of being cultured. From the start the show had numerous limitations that make it an instant failure and an immense discredit to the "art world." First of all it is clear that we are going to be getting a crash course in the New York art scene.

New York is still arguably the axis of the art world, however this doesn't mean it dictates good art from bad art. In fact one might be doing themselves a great disservice to only focus on art in the geographical confines of the city. The other thing about the New York art scene is its narrow-minded sameness.

A Chelsea walk has often been too dissatisfying with the exception of a few well thought out concepts, the majority of art on a given day is structured to fit the consumer and material mode of life. That said we are led to believe that our contestants and their challenges will fit the mode of this perfectly and arguably make for interesting TV for the layperson, but a horrendous debacle of misrepresentations for the passionate art person. 

All of these contestants are American, like many in the other reality shows they all work in the United States and are generally products of Universities of trade schools in America. I don't get a sense that this group of artists really is representative of the greater creative environment because many of them are run of the mill art students or seasoned veterans of contemporary trends.

There is one untrained artist named Erik Johnson who claims that before this show his art hasn't been seen outside of his home. Johnson's naivety seems sincere and he definitely seems like the lamb going into the slaughter. I definitely don't see him going far in this rat race.  I do admire his work for being genuine and pretty technically savvy and relevant for someone who has no idea about the art world. In his audition segment it seemed that he wowed the judges with his primal skills, although by the end of the first episode it felt like the judges were definitely regretting their decision. Perhaps this show will inspire Johnson to get a grip on art history and theory, which he tells the judges in the first episode he knows nothing about. I feel that if he did learn some of the rules he would be better at breaking them.

The young art students exist in Miles Mendenhall, Ryan Shultz, Nicole Nadeau, Abdi Farah, Jacyln Santos, Jaime Lynn Henderson, and Mark Velasquez. Miles is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota and focuses heavily on printmaking. In the premiere episode he created a makeshift print lab on the set, which won him style points from the judges. His screen prints seem to be average conceptual pieces that one might expect from an emerging art student that has probably not completely found himself yet.

Ryan Shultz is a total hipster artist all to familiar to the New York scene these days. His hyper realistic paintings are boring and not even executed that well and his artist statement is unoriginal and it reeks of bullshit. Nicole Nadeau is related to one of the Real Houswives of New York City, so right off the bat she is easy to write off. However, rich aunt aside it is her artwork alone is what will or should define her personality. Judging from her introductory "google self-portrait" she is a social networking obsessed hip artist. Like many of these younger art school types if nothing else expressive can be taken from their art, they can at least provide us a poignant statement on the dissolution of this generation. Abdi Farah is hard to dislike although his work is full of figurative clichés. His bubbly personality suggests that these images are really genuine of who he is. I also admire the willingness to admit his spirituality playing a defining role in his artwork, which is a rare element in an overly atheistic art scene. I find his figurative painting to be far more interesting than Shultz and Santos.

Santos already loses points and my interest for her dumb statements throughout the first episode and in her introduction where she claims: "I think it's a common misperception that artists aren't intelligent and couldn't do anything else...I could have done anything I wanted. I was very smart. I could have studied law if I wanted to." So artists aren't smart? She finds a need to be self-affirming and advocating that passion for art drove her away from having a "smart" job, however she shows herself to be insincere and ridiculous. Maybe she should have become a lawyer or something because her artwork isn't that spectacular either, it is more of a contemporary feminist yearning that makes me wonder if she really believes in what she is doing or has just found a nice little safe niche.

Henderson is the fashionista artist who claims to combine fashion, and self-adornment with god. I don't know what to think about her statement but I definitely thought her work wasn't as interesting as her personality nor do I think that she is making god look fashionable. She is probably going to be one of the maincharacters that you'll root against (we are running out of front runners fast!) Valasquez is a very likable person from the get go, his work was definitely not what I'd call great art but rather skilled photoshop work. He does have a nice eye for color in his photography but not so much of an eye for subject matter. Furthermore, for such a sweet sounding guy there is something disturbingly unsettling about his work...It would definitely be very juicy television if these troubling influences come to the surface.

The emerging artists exist in Peregrine Honig, Nao Bustamante, and Jon Parot. Honig's work is very reminiscent of everything and anything commercial. Paddy Johnson at Art Fag City nails it on the head when she compares the work to Urban Outfitter artist Amy Ross, in fact everything that Honig has made could easily be manufactured and sold for retail prices at any trendy chain store. Bustamante is shaping up to be a great antagonist on this show. She tells it like it is or at least how she views it. Upon entering the set she commented that in front of all this work (by her competitors) she felt like she already won. She also argued with the judge's assessments on the first challenge that said her portraiture project was too non-representational of portraiture. Her work was a heavily conceptualized installation that she said was more about the process of her subject than his apparent likeness.

I had to side with her on this point, and I think she made a strong argument that will hopefully continue to attack the establishment. The unfortunate part of this was that her submission to the first project wasn't exceptional so she might just become a rebel without a cause. Parot has made himself the token gay artist in this show. His resume is definitely that of an established artist but again it feels overly redundant and played out. It hasn't progressed into a personal statement but I feel it does embody a counterculture fairly well.

The established artists in the show are Judith Braun, Amanda Williams, and Trong Nguyen. Judith Braun seems rather likeable from the start. She is the eldest of the contestants and has a very long and established resume. Her work also has progressed in various manifestations but now ultimately seems boring or just too similar to many symmetrical and feminist works of art that exist in museums and galleries. Amanda Williams is the art professor type.

She has a long resume of shows to her name and also is a successful teacher. However, this doesn't mean she has any edge. In fact her work was cliché from the get go. It was full of very bland identity statements that would look great on the walls of some corporation or hotel or collector that wanted to play it safe while maybe making an edgy whimper. She was the first artist to get booted from the show with her abstract portrait that really confused me and apparently was the one thing that I actually agreed with the judges over. Trong Nguyen is the only artist I have actually heard of before this show.

I was actually surprised to find that the criteria for this contest allowed for someone who had previous art world success on his level (same said for Braun and Williams). Nguyen is an interesting personality; he is probably the stereotypical conceptual post-modern artist in this show. Not only is he a successful artist but also he has worn many hats in the art scene as a critic and curator. His artwork is definitely worthy of his merit but I just don't see anything too groundbreaking. Apparently he is also giving advice to the younger artists like the untrained Johnson. This will apparently lead to a very "controversial" outcome in episode two.

Besides the contestants the judges are all too similar and dishonest as well. Jerry Saltz continued to prove why he is the next Clement Greenberg, and the host/judge China Chow (the Heidi Klum of the show) portrays the uninformed collector with a very objective terminology and definition of art. Why do people like art? It is probably more of a social status for many of these people than anything else. These judges make up for a very unsatisfying critique in the first episode.

It was shocking to me how unsophisticated and shallow their comments were on the work of art. Jerry Saltz is arguably the most outspoken celebrity critic in the world and his enigma makes it very hard to like or trust him. That said I don't completely disagree with a few of his ideologies like his crusade for advocating women artists be represented better in the MoMA. It was just very obnoxious the way he went about it. I don't know too much about the other judges, Bill Powers feels like an art world powerhouse. He is a gallerist which might make it hard for him to be non-biased in his overall decisions since the end result of this show is to essentially find the next big commercial art star.

The same is felt towards Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. According to the show's webpage she is a gallerist, art advisor, independent curator, collector, and tastemaker. I feel that too often these critics decide that they are more important than the work of art and the artist and that it is ultimately their opinion that will define and shape the art. If this mentality is correct then this show will further drive the message home that the mass populace of TV watching Americans is more important than the individual artist and artwork. It will be very interesting and probably frustrating to hear the commentary from these judges consistently as the show goes on.

The saving grace is the artists' mentor, Simon De Pury who is this shows Tim Gunn (Project Runway style guru). De Pury's charm makes this show feel human, even though many times I feel he might not fully understand or take the time to care about what is truly going on. But this is just a generalization taken from the choppy editing and high-end production of a TV station. It would be very interesting to see that moments that weren't so snug or melodramatic.

From day one I got the impression that the next big thing in art will be the same old thing that art has consistently stood for. No matter how different these contestants might be it certainly is hard to distinguish much individuality from the first episode. Hopefully this changes as the series progresses and maybe this downside is more due to annoying production aspects than the artists themselves. Whatever the reason we need to gain more of an insight into the personal stories of the artists while they are making their work and less on the run of the mill reality formula that Bravo has been so successful in manipulating.

The shows host, China Chow delivers the nail in the coffin with her statement: "We're trying to reach a mainstream audience with this and hopefully it's something that, as the episodes air and they get to see what we've done, hopefully they will put their stamp of approval on it. But ultimately, I feel like it's a gift more to mainstream America to be able to witness art -- artists making their work and having a dialogue about it."

Dear fellow artists, we are in trouble...