The world of reality television revolves around the all important “Throwing Under the Bus”, the positioning of oneself into an advantage to the expressed detriment of another. Bravo’s new reality competition, Work of Art: Next Great Artist, searches for the top bus thrower in the world of contemporary art- an art world that is dominated and orchestrated by some of the best bus throwers around: A match made in heaven! After all, art is for arguing, and when you “like” something you uphold what it represents. When art is judged (either by reality television, or within the viewer’s mind) the losing piece(s) get thrown under the bus in favor of your taste, your vision, your ideology.
I’ve been a Top Chef fan for years and have always thought that if reality tv could de-mystify the ultra-elite, cloistered and prohibited world of fine dining, similar exposure could help ameliorate the same class boundaries that cage fine art. Work of Art: NGA, follows narrowly along Top Chef‘s trajectory, which is a good thing and not at all a surprise as they are both Magical Elves and Bravo produced. The show is also produced by SJP herself- Sarah Jessica Parker is right out in front, making a cameo early on in ep1 adding familiar glitz to an unfamiliar art landscape.
The host and judge is China Chow, whose stated qualifications are that she grew up in a family of collectors (rich), and that she knows/knew Warhol, Basquiat, and Schnabel (famous). The other members of the judges table, which they call “crit” (WONDERFUL), are Art Advisor and Gallerist Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, Bill Powers, co-owner of Half-Gallery and Editor at Large of Purple Magazine, and The Venerable Jerry Saltz. Jerry Saltz is the well-known senior art critic at New York Magazine. Touted as being a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, Jerry has a lot of friends on Facebook and gives the panel serious clout. Also along for the ride is art world auction house bigwig Simon de Pury. De Pury is neither host nor judge, his self-defined purpose is to be there for “help, advice, and most of all, full moral support”. A miraculous get for such a hysterical role, de Pury will be the stuffed-shirt cheerleader with the adorable European accent, and should prove to be loads of entertainment in the weeks to come.
The 14 contestants are competing for $100,000 (courtesy Prismacolor) and a solo show at the twice said “World Famous” Brooklyn Museum. Not too shabby. The 14 artists run the gamut from the amazingly rough-hewn and self-taught Erik Johnson, to polished insiders Nao Bustamante and Trong Nguyen. The youngest in the group is 22 year old Abdi Farah, oldest belongs to 61 year old Judith Braun. With only 5 of the artists being older than 32 (two of those five being Nao, and Trong), the “Next Great Artist” should be suitably young. Unlike the art world, a full half of the artists are women. Sadly paralleling the art word, only 4 of the 14 artists are not white.
The episode began with a group show of the contestants self portraits. The 14 artists were then paired off for their first elimination challenge. The challenge was to create a portrait of the artist that they were paired with, and they were given a scant 13 hours to complete this piece of work.
Landing in the top 3 were Mark Velasquez with an aggressive photoshoped photograph, Abdi Farah with a dynamic and large flame-orange oil painting, and Miles Mendenhal with a black and white silkscreen collage of Nao. The 23 year old Miles took the victory and earned immunity in next week’s challenge. If Top Chef dictum holds form, Miles, as the winner of the first challenge is in good shape for the long haul. He is as pretty as could be, young, virile, with a twist of OCD to give him that real artsy flavor. Miles’ created a homemade darkroom for silkscreen exposure, an accomplishment that downright titillated Simon de Pury. Miles’ instinctual fervor masks a coy and learned practice. So much so that Jerry Saltz commenting on the piece’s execution, conceptualization, and references said that they were “all good moves”. Let’s put it this way, Miles is so money that when SJP cameo-ed out to star-strike the contestants, he was the only one who had the wherewithal to pretend to not know who she was. It’s that kind of playful flightiness that will carry Miles into the finale.
The bottom three were Amanda Williams who did a painfully boring, thinly painted patterned field, the aforementioned self-taught Erik Johnson with his terrifying John Wayne Gacy-like portrayal of the seemingly good-natured Mark, and the headstrong Nao Bustamante’s over-conceptualized mapping of Miles’ movements landed her in the basement. Nao is made for tv. She’s older and more successful than nearly everyone on the show, and knows it, and wants you to know it too. In “crit”, as she was being roundly knocked for ignoring the traditional associations of portraiture, Nao said “I’m not responsible for your experience of my work”. Nao is good for at least three of these insensitive self-aggrandizing outbursts per episode, MINIMUM- reality tv gold! She’s not good at hearing criticism but loves dishing it out, loves it. Unsolicited criticism is a hallmark of a reality tv super-villain, and Nao has star written all over her. Or to use Nao’s own words (which I’m sure she’d prefer), “I feel like I’ve already won, and so I think that I can be very generous with my criticism.” How right she is.
Keeping with realty show convention, Amanda Williams, an older, minority contestant (and the only self-described Abstract artist) was the first to go. Amanda, we hardly knew thee.
Work of Art: Next Great Artist seems to be loaded with all the components for a successful series. Eccentric competitors, highfalutin arbiters of taste and worth, and big-money big-fame guests abound. While the show will undoubtedly help the commercial prospects of the artists featured, only time will tell if the monastically devout Serious art community will embrace these cable tv contestants. Even a solo show at the “World Famous” Brooklyn Museum (who occasionally dip into Pop with their own Star Wars and Rock and Roll exhibitions) might not be enough to mask the smell of television fame. On the plus side, $100,000 can erase your graduate school debt, maybe, or at least pay off most of it.
I have to think that somewhere out in L.A. Jeffrey Deitch is rolling over in his grave.
Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn on Amanda Williams’ piece, “It looks like very good wallpaper.”
Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn on Erik Johnson’s piece, “There’s no excuse for bad painting!”.
Contestant Peregrine Hoing describing herself, “I’m really into lilies right now… and hermaphrodites.”
Contestant Erik Johnson having finished early suggesting that he and Simon de Pury go to a strip club.
Work of Art: Next Top Artist signature phrase, when at “Crit” and nearing elimination, “Its been said that good art is not what it looks like, but how it makes you feel. Your work didn’t make us feel anything!” Adding, “Your work of art didn’t work for us!”.
# of Koons references, 2.
List of Contestants
Abdi Farah, 22, Figurative Painter/ Sculptor
Jaclyn Santos, 25, Realist Painter
Amanda Williams, 34, Abstract Painter
Mark Velasquez, 32, Photographer
Trong Nguyen, 38, Installation Artist
Miles Mendenhall, 23, Installation Artist
Nao Bustamante, 46, Performance Artist
Ryan Shultz, 26, Realist Painter
Peregrine Hoing, 32, Painter/ Sculptor
Jamie Lynn Henderson, 24, Painter/ Illustrator
John Parot, 39, Painter
Judith Braun, 61, Mixed Media
Erik Johnson, 30, Painter
Nicole Nadeau, 25, Industrial Design/ Sculptor