Monday, June 14, 2010

Miles Mendenhall won Week 1,
imitating a 19th century “death portrait” of Nina Bustamante

Once Bravo lost Project Runway to Lifetime, the cable network that came closest to being a PBS for the 21st century had something of a crisis. In the Actor’s Studio & Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the two series that distinguished the network back in the days when it mostly ran the best movies on basic cable, were already fading memories. Top Chef suffered mightily from the fact that you could see, but not taste, the participant’s creations. And the series of Real Wives knock-offs seemed aimed at an entirely different audience altogether, one that could have just as easily gotten that sort of show from E! Now, two seasons after the last original Runway series on the network, Bravo has re-entered the arena for high-concept reality TV with Work of Art, a blatant Project Runway imitation with the notable difference that its contestants are trying to make it in the least equitable of all creative markets, the fine arts.

The premise of the show is identical to that of Runway. 14 contestants – two less than on PR – are given a series of challenges, with one person eliminated each week until the winner gets a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, plus $100,000. The contestants were obviously chosen for their diversity. Exactly half are women & four are “of color” and the levels of experience are just as broad. Vietnamese-born Trong Nguyen has been showing in New York & European settings for the better part of a decade, and is widely known as a curator as well. Nao Bustamante teaches at the Rensselaer Institute and has been on the art scene for over 25 years. Yet one of the other contestants is a fast food cook from Santa Maria, California, with some decent photography/Photoshop skills, but aimed perhaps more at becoming a commercial illustrator. Another fellow has been living in his truck, has never had a lesson and has never shown his art work to anyone. It shows. Still another is an outspoken Christian lady who appears to have walked over from Real Wives of Oklahoma City – yet her MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago suggests that she may be one of the sleepers here.

On the first show, which aired on Wednesday and is already available for streaming on the Bravo web site, Bustamante & the fellow who had never shown his work to anyone ever were two of the three fighting against being instantly eliminated. Bustamante & the African-American woman who was sent hither basically were punished for presenting abstract work in a challenge that was to do a portrait of another artist. The winner was Miles Mendenhall, the youngest artist ever to win a Minnesota State Arts Board fellowship, who also has a pronounced case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Imagine Monk in the body of a teen idol – this guy is going to be a huge hit with the fans whether he wins or not.

If, that is, the show doesn’t sink from the weight of its own misconceptions. The executive producer here is no Heidi Klum. In fact, it’s Sarah Jessica Parker, Carrie from the Sex & the City franchise, who makes a couple of cameos in show number one to gush at the artists, but isn’t visibly part of the judging. The mentor – the Tim Gunn role here – isn’t an older artist, but Simon de Pury, the auctioneer who started in Geneva & who appears to have bought & sold everything, including his own business. His French accent is a pale echo of Gunn’s clipped speech & pointed opinions. More importantly, he has little to really say about the works he sees in progress, since production is not his expertise, just distribution. The host, China Chow, is a collector known to be friends with a number of artists. The permanent judges consist of Chow and three curator/critics: Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, who sits on the board at White Columns & the president’s council at DIA while running her Salon 94 in the art ghetto of the Upper East Side; Jerry Saltz, senior art critic at New York Magazine; and Bill Powers, co-owner of Half Gallery & editor at large for Purple Fashion magazine. And while neither Rohatyn nor Powers are troglodytes, nobody calls foul when two of the three works that come up for elimination include the only abstractions in the group.

All of which points to the hulking, Technicolor elephant in the room: THERE ARE NO ARTISTS HELPING THE CONTESTANTS OF THIS SHOW AT ALL. None. Nada. It’s all about the buyers. Just like Sex & the City. Imagine Project Runway if the judges consisted only of Nina Garcia, the Jerry Saltz of that posse, Melissa Rivers & Lindsay Lohan. Work of Art is not a show about making art, but rather of making collectibles, of manufacturing ready-to-sell pieces. What I’d give to see a Joseph Beuys in this crowd of contestants, especially with a hungry coyote and a good supply of rancid animal fat. I have never appreciated PR’s Michael Kors more than when watching the brazenly incompetent judging portion of Work of Art’s first show.

The result is instantly predictable. The winner of this show will be able to sell, but is unlikely to have any perceptible impact on any other artist, unless it’s repulsion, regardless of how well the work is made or how likeable the artist is as a person. This is a bizarre theory of how to find “the next great artist.” Not unlike letting Garrison Keillor or Caroline Kennedy edit your poetry anthologies on the grounds that they may once have read a book. And every bit as doomed to failure.