In the sense that all portraits refer to the subject they represent, I suppose titling the first episode of Bravo’s reality show “Work of Art” Self-Reflexive isn’t totally off the mark, even if it indulges in foofery. The first challenge asks artists to create a portrait in whatever medium they choose of one of their colleagues, and I didn’t see a hell of a lot of profoundly self-referential subject matter. One good work was made in the challenge, Miles Mendenhall’s erotic death portrait of Nao Bustamante, a screenprint wrapped in plastic materials referencing her own performances. Not surprisingly he won that round and has therefore been granted immunity in the next show.
Amanda Williams, Portrait of Jamie Lynn Henderson, 2009
Amanda Williams‘ portrait of Jaime Lynn Henderson got her eliminated, mostly because the only similarity it bore to its subject were a couple of leafs painted in the same color as Henderson’s hair. Mentor Simon de Pury rightly expressed concern in the studio, though he wasn’t as rough as the colleagues I watched the show with last night, who rightly dubbed the work wallpaper. When Williams described her 48 hours of art making “a journey” during her exit video, I was relieved to have her gone. Art does not need to be represented by these kinds of self-improvement cliches.
As I’ve mentioned previously, the first episode was expertly edited and completely hilarious. A testament to this, amongst the more promising clips from the show was China Chow’s uttering the words Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, and an immediate cut to the show’s oldest and most experienced artist, Judith Braun laughing hysterically. Critique of the show from the cast itself is a hallmark of truly outstanding reality television. It’s also a far greater demonstration of self-reflexivity than most of the work made for this challenge.
I’ll be offering show recaps each week, but seeing as how I reviewed the premiere episode in April, I’m skipping the first episode. That said, a couple of concerns worth noting going forward:
1. Midway through the show, Amanda Williams evaluates her work as “good for the public” but not overly descriptive of its subject. It’s entirely unclear what “art for the public” should look like, but talk like this isn’t going to ingratiate artists to audiences. The last thing this show needs is to have its very contestants re-enforce high-falutin stereotypes of artists with statements about how the public is only sophisticated enough to get their shitty work. Here’s hoping that idea isn’t pushed forward in upcoming episodes.
LEFT: Abdi Farah, Portrait of Ryan Shultz, 2009 RIGHT: Nao Bustamante, Portrait of Miles Mendenhall, 2009
2. Jerry Saltz not withstanding, the judges offer some cause for concern. China Chow reveals herself a lazy viewer when she complains that she couldn’t see the tiny photograph Nao Bustamante hung beside her portrait of Miles Mendenhall. Bill Powers backs her up, faking strain to see the picture. This rightfully garnered a snooty reply back from Bustamante, “Typically people walk around a work in a gallery situation”.
Meanwhile, through out the show Jeanne Greenberg Rohtayn, owner of the respected gallery Salon 94, endlessly uses the words “contemporary” and “now” as if they were a qualitative assessment. “He is contemporary, he is nasty, I think you really captured your subject” says Greenberg Rohtayn of Abdi Farah’s ham fisted painting of hipster lifestyle artist Ryan Shultz. Farah literally created a giant yellow sun to back the subject. If this show produces an audience that equates the word “contemporary” with “quality” it’s done everyone a great disservice.
3. “Portraiture has really been taken over by photography and you are right on for today.”Jeanne Greenberg Rohtayn tells Mark Velasquez, the photographer who managed to produce a highly commercial portrait of self-trained artist Erik Johnson. The episode’s message? Portraiture is best defined figuratively and by a camera.
Watch the first episode on Hulu.