Let’s be honest: many of us watch reality television to fulfill a voyeuristic need to peer into other people’s lives, and perhaps to feel better about our own. The staggering success of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise would seem to prove this, just as the cable channel’s reality shows tap this universal human need within the context of competition.
We’ve seen pastry chefs break down about Red Hots, fashion designers make competitors’ mothers cry (Project Runway’s Jeffrey Sebelia, we’re looking at you), but the drama has perhaps never seemed quite so real or the participants quite so tortured as the artists on Bravo’s highly addictive Work of Art, currently airing its second season Wednesday nights at 9 p.m.
Work of Art, from executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker (who occasionally glides down from fairy-godmother heaven to make an on-camera appearance or two) and the Magical Elves (the producers of Top Chef and many other reality shows), purports to be about the search for the next great artist, but it’s actually about having creative types jump through ever-tightening hoops as they’re made to mesh their individual styles with a series of artistic challenges designed to break them down. Art, as well as inspiration, after all, takes time, so being forced to create functional renditions of street art or pop art using a limited window of time while cameras are filming your every move isn’t exactly a true estimation of the creative process.
But that’s also where the unexpected habit-forming quality of Work of Art emerges, as it’s impossible to look away from this show. While the erudite, artsy angle may turn some viewers away, this is perhaps the most revealing reality-television show to come along in some time.
While it follows a similar reality-TV format as Top Chef or Project Runway, Work of Art takes the audience on the same sensory journey as the judges’. Unlike on Top Chef, where the dishes can’t be tasted, here you have the same experience of discovery as the panel (which includes noted art critic Jerry Saltz and gallery owner Bill Powers), as the finished product is digested in roughly the same fashion on your television set as it is in the gallery. It empowers the audience.
That aside, it’s the zaniness of the contestants that make Work of Art such an engaging nonguilty guilty pleasure. Last year, outsider Miles ejaculated on his assignment in order to add his “essence” to the piece. This season, self-proclaimed “supervillain” The Sucklord (né Morgan Phillips), a vainglorious nerd god with a penchant for using childhood icons and action figures in his art, was revealed to be little more than a kid in hipster’s clothing, when Saltz told him to stop using Star Wars toys and create his own world. (He was largely undone, ironically, by a challenge in the Nov. 2 episode, in which he has to re-create a child’s artwork. Taking his toys away from him renders him unable to cope or create.)
Bratty Lola—whose mother, we’re told, once dated Al Pacino—unwittingly re-created her own childhood experiences by fulfilling the role of Mean Girl, putting stickers on competitor Kymia’s artwork in what she claimed was an expression of street art’s “naughtiness.” (Incidentally, Kymia, between breast-bearing incidents and crying jags, co-created a stunning piece of art depicting a family uprooted by a homogenized bureaucratic presence.) Kathryn, a sufferer of IBS, recycled imagery of bloody intestines until she was reduced to a sobbing, gasping mess during the judges’ critique. (It was this show’s equivalent of “The Red Hots were for my mommy!” from Top Chef Just Desserts.) Michelle, a survivor of a hit-and-run incident, unsurprisingly utilizes morbid imagery in her work, but she was recently only too willing to draw tiger penises and surreal scenes of imagined debauchery with her cohort Lola, landing them both in the bottom in the challenge on the Nov. 16 episode.
It’s these moments—the artists in front of their critics—that provide Work of Art with a sharp crackle, even more so than similar showdowns on Bravo’s other reality programs. While these are inherently tense, awkward situations, Work of Art makes these critiques intensely personal, given how much the artists attempt to put of themselves in their individual pieces. (Taking that to an extreme, Season 1’s Jaclyn only seemed to be able to create art when it included photos of her naked breasts.) Mental breakdowns (such as Kathryn’s) are de rigueur here, as are teary remonstrations, pleas for leniency, and arrogant defiance, as well as brutal honesty on the part of the judges, who are only too willing to share their harsh assessments.
Even when the art is lackluster, there’s pleasure to be had from seeing just what judge Powers (known to rock some awesomely vivid green shoes on occasion) and host China Chow will be wearing each week. Powers’s eclectic style has informed his wife Cynthia Rowley’s recent menswear collection, while Chow shows up each week wearing something provocative and often head-scratching: a dress sculpted in the shape of a swath of paper for the New York Times newspaper challenge, or a white sheath dress that she then invited contestants to spray-paint on in the latest episode. Chow isn't the most expressive host (she appears to have audited a class or two at the Katie Lee Joel School of Reality Show Hosting) but her quirkiness and willingness to engage with the contestants (she giggled heartily as The Sucklord spray-painted nipples on the white canvas of her dress) gives the show an additional layer of unpredictability.
Additionally, Work of Art has given the artists a mentor in renowned auctioneer Simon de Pury, a gleefully energetic and winking presence who resembles a sharply dressed (the double-breasted suits!) and slightly dotty Swiss noble with an encyclopedic knowledge of fine art and a bottomless well of enthusiasm. His catchphrases—among them, “Go for it!,” “Mmmm, yes,” and “Be bold! Be brave! Be amazing!”—may not have the same weight as Tim Gunn’s purred “Make it work,” but these have nonetheless become European-accented bons mots all the same.
And, every now and then, Work of Art has been known to produce an actual work of art. For every failed project, like Bayeté’s church doors or The Sucklord’s overtly obvious oil-dripping money sculpture, there is a sensational piece of art that is shocking and provocative. These twinklings of genius give the show some artistic heft, and most typically these are when the contestants start focusing less on competing and more on the actual work, unloading themselves emotionally, politically, or psychologically. (Or, in the case of the aforementioned Miles, physically.) I’m thinking of the genuine instances of self-activation, such as when Michelle transformed a piece of “bad art” into The Eternal Woodsman, a mixed-media display of painted statue, cloudy backdrop, and a skeleton, sculpted entirely out of paper, of a woodsman crawling to his own grave.
Heady? Yes, but it’s also a moment of truth, something Simon de Pury would celebrate. (I can just see him excitedly jumping up and down, brightly colored spectacles in his hand.) Boldness is the watchword here, both in terms of the artwork on display and Work of Art itself. It might not be museum-quality, but as populist art, this show is aces.