Work of Art may ejaculate on the art world, but it’s Bravo’s best competition since Top Chef

Work of Art is, quite simply, Bravo’s best competition series since Top Chef. While nearly all of the competition series have followed the same template–Top Design, Shear Genius, Step it Up and Dance–they haven’t fired on all cylinders. But this show, executive produced by Sarah Jessica Parker and created by Magical Elves, absolutely does.

Since art is so visual, everything from the creation process to the judging makes good TV, and the studio space looks like a fun place for us to hang out and watch the artists work. There’s so much more going on, whereas with cooking or sewing, it’s ultimately kind of limited to seeing the same sort of thing repeated again and again.

Like most Magical Elves-produced shows, Work of Art gorgeous, and the requisite shots of the city are black and white with pops of florescent color. Besides being visually engaging, it has also been cast extremely well, and I think artists are the perfect reality show cast members with their combination of intelligence, craziness, and personality. Few people on the show are uninteresting.

Whatever you think of him, and perhaps because you can think different things about him, Miles Mendenhall is its star. He’s odd and hilarious and cute and unquestionably talented, though sometimes he creates questionable things and behaves in ways that suggest he’s playing the “tortured artist,” as Erik accused him of being. In his most memorable piece, which the title of this review references, he recalled his first erection, which was to The Little Mermaid, and then drew sexual figures inside Mickey Mouse’s silhouette, topping it off with a visit to the bathroom to coat it in, um, unconventional material. Most of the time, though, his work is inspired, and his process is amazing. Charged with designing a book cover, he spent more than half his work time reading the book for inspiration.

The Tim Gunn mentor, Simon de Pury, isn’t quite the teacher Tim is, which means his feedback isn’t always constructive like Tim’s, but that’s also allowed him to make the mentor role his own. And he’s hilarious, so it’s fun watching him interact with the contestants. With Miles’ aforementioned piece, Simon hilariously recalled his first erection, which he said was to a Renoir painting.

Last night the show lost its villain, Erik, who became quite the dick in the past few episodes, culminating in him calling Miles a “stuck up art pussy” and fighting with his team to the point of basically removing himself from the process last night. Without him and people like performance artist Nao Bustamante, I worry that the show could get a little dry, but there’s still a lot of personality and talent.

The most important part of any competition besides the cast is its challenges, and while they started strong, the last two have been weak. Last week’s was open-ended but still too tied to product placement for Audi, which seemed to end up limiting the artists in the same way they seemed trapped when they had to find inspiration at a showroom. (Product placement can be done well, and the awesome book cover redesign challenge was a perfect example of that.) Last night’s challenge was far better, though I kind of hate these work-as-a-team, judged-individually challenges, which make for good TV but seem like inauthentic ways to create. Either you collaborate and the product is truly the team’s, or it’s just individuals glued together.

Thus, the team challenge made for great TV but didn’t produce what appeared to be art; it was more like a construction project, and the results were just okay. Critiquing one team’s piece, judge Jerry Saltz said, “it’s the kind of art that gives art a bad name”–but that piece won, which may explain the negative reaction in the art world to the show. That’s where the show stumbles most: its judging. Host and judge China Chow is no Kelly Choi, thankfully, as she does a fine job of introducing challenges and moderating. But as a panel, the judges don’t stand out, and lack a Colicchio-ish leader.

Worse, they aren’t really good at explaining their decisions. I assume that a lot of what they say gets cut and we hear the most distilled version possible, but the effect sounds like a parody of art critics, as they appear to be overreaching and finding all kinds of meaning without explaining how or where they see that. I’m a TV critic, and I teach analysis, so the idea of critiquing works of art is not lost on me; I think it’s valuable and even important. Here, though, while we hear the artists talking about their work, the show kind of limps through “the critique.” We need more insight from the judges about why they’re making their decisions so they don’t sound ridiculous and easily dismissed.

Judge Jerry Saltz blogs about each episode for New York Magazine, and in last week’s post, he wrote, “as annoying as Work of Art often is, it’s structured so that questions get raised, aesthetic judgments appear more open, and people actually get involved with a process as strange as making art. Or I’ve just been bamboozled by good old-fashioned American showbiz.”

This is definitely great showbiz, and we do get involved with the process, but for Work of Art to be a flawless televised work of art, the judges–and the editors–need to make sure we have better access to those aesthetic judgments.

Work of Art: A-

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.