By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; C01
Having "Real-Housewived" its loyal viewers into catatonia, Bravo returns to the idea that there can be a reality show that is first and foremost about skill. Talent and personality have to factor in, too, along with a finicky little bugger called luck. And I'm sure "Work of Art," the network's new "Project Runway"-style competition among visual artists debuting Wednesday night, will soon enough devolve into tightly choreographed squabbles and meltdowns.
But when it debuts Wednesday night, "Work of Art" asks us to revel momentarily in the idea of skill. Which is nice, because, outside of some terrific grout work occasionally seen on home-improvement shows, TV viewers really don't get enough exposure to skill these days. The only thing anyone works at anymore is getting cast on reality shows, which gets them book deals and then appearances on other reality shows.
But "Work of Art" is at least about making something. It's subtitled "The Next Great Artist," which seems about as optimistic an outcome as when "Project Runway" once hoped to deliver the next Yves Saint Laurent. Nevertheless, "Work of Art" is an immediately engaging dip into the expansive mindset of striving artists, who are offering themselves up to the art world's (and to some extent, viewers') judgments.
I wouldn't have predicted this, but it turns out that it's a whole lot more fun to watch people paint on deadline than it is to watch them make deadline clothing ("Project Runway") or cook deadline food ("Top Chef").
Artists have a way of calming things down, and they are a welcome antidote to the increasingly frantic and redundant Bravo lineup. Artists are always the human equivalent of "downtown," which is a state of mind more than anything else. Even when they're freaking out (and, oh, they will), there's a certain enviable style to it. One of "Work of Art's" contestants, who says he's been clinically diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive, has a conniption during the first round of competition when he blows the only bulb in his makeshift darkroom. He switches gears with his project to make it work as something else. Somewhere, over on Lifetime, Tim Gunn is smiling.
"Work of Art" does not deviate one whit from the format of "Runway" and "Chef": Fourteen artists arrive in New York, cast on the basis of a self-portrait and their ability to talk about their artistic vision. Their ages -- they range from 22 to 61 -- and backgrounds seem to vary more widely than on Bravo's previous competition shows.
In their first competition, the artists are assigned a task familiar to anyone who took art in high school: After being paired off, each must create a portrait of the other person, in only one day.
Some went to art school, some didn't. Some are already known in certain circles; some have had success selling their art; most of them show up speaking the finely opaque language of art school "crits" (critiques). A couple are realist painters, a few are abstract, others are installation artists, and one works mainly in photography. One looks around the room and arrogantly dismisses the work of most of her competitors. One has never shown his art to anyone and keeps reminding us that he has no formal training whatsoever.
There is a Heidi Klum host figure (China Chow, who grew up in a family that hobnobbed with Warhol, Haring, Schnabel, etc.), a Tim Gunn mentor figure (contemporary art auctioneer Simon de Pury) and a warm yet grim panel of judges (a gallery owner, a curator, New York magazine's art critic). The contestants are competing for $100,000 and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum. When they are eliminated, the catch phrase is "Your work of art didn't work for us."
What a namby-pamby thing to say! (Why not, "You call this art?!") But it's also perfect, given that "Work of Art" immediately (and happily) plunges into the sea of subjectivity. Whereas "Project Runway" could at least count on a viewership that shops for clothes with a discernment gleaned from a lifetime of ingesting fashion magazines, what do most of us know about art? (Other than how it will look over a sofa?) "Work of Art" seems enthusiastically up to the task of teaching us something about looking at art. The first episode is a pleasant surprise, the most edifying hour of reality TV I've watched in weeks and weeks. Hardly art, but it works for me.
Work of Art
(one hour) premieres at 11 p.m. Wednesday on Bravo.