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'Work of Art': Driven to abstraction

OK, consider the kinds of things that have been shown on Bravo's reality shows: table-throwing, witch-slapping, screaming fights, tiny outfits that barely cover models' behinds, gross material excess, insane self-delusions ...

So I have to wonder what's going to happen on "Work of Art: The Search for the Next Great Artist" that requires this warning: "The following program may contain material that is unsuitable for young viewers. Parental discretion is advised." Really? Well, let's see.

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Also, for my local readers, three of the 14 contestants have Baltimore ties: Abdi Farah is a Baltimore native, and Jaclyn Santos and John Parot both graduated from MICA.

The winner will end up with a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum and a $100,000 prize. Not too shabby.

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Abdi shows up first and tells us that he lives in Dover, Pa., and that he needs this. He explains that the contestants were all instructed to create a self-portrait -- his shows him as a space alien of sorts. He wanders into a room containing all the portraits, where I'm sure they will all immediately begin sizing up the competition.

Nao Bustamante does a lot of video installations and (later) becomes the designated trash-talker.

Ryan Shultz is a realist painter and says, "I live to create and I create to live."

Jaclyn Santos is also a realist painter, and let's just be frank. She literally struts down the street and she says that a lot of people assume that "someone like me couldn't be an artist." Because she's pretty and wears high heels? I kind of don't get it. Also, her self-portrait has a red star covering up her exposed private parts, like you'd see TMZ do on a photo of Britney or Paris trying to get out of a limo.

Miles Mendenhall is from Minnesota and says he has OCD and lots of neurotic quirks. "It's something that's not manageable." Yikes. He seems nice, and his work looks cool, but I probably wouldn't want to be his roommate. (He probably wouldn't want to be mine, either, since I suffer from clutter blindness.)

Amanda Williams started out as an architect and then decided one day that if she could do one thing to make her happy, she would be a painter. She's used her actual birth certificate in her self-portrait.

Nicole Nadeau did a "Google self-portrait" composed of pieces of photos of and web pages about herself that came up on the search engine. She is explaining that it's also shaped like a reclining female form, "the legs are here," etc. Nao says she doesn't really see it, but she's going with it. Nicole interviews that Nao is so rude, but she won't be intimidated by her. Trash-talking already! Woo! Also, have to say, if you have to give it that much explanation, well ...

Erik Johnson is a painter who is entirely self-taught -- we see video of his casting session in which he tells the panel that this is "the first time my art's been out of the house." Ooh, a rookie!

All we see of Judith Braun is that she is really excited that Trong Nguyen, a well-known artist, is here. He has created a self-portrait that's basically a silhouette, but he says he created it so it would disintegrate around the edges. "We'll see who disappears first, me or the image." Oh, and we see the Abdi really likes Judith's portrait.

Then they start zooming through the introductions and glances at portraits.

John Parot hopes his work will get a larger audience now so he can get out of his cockroach-filled studio. Nao interviews that John's triangle painting isn't very well-executed.

Then some other folks wander in, Simon De Pury and China Chow come in to start freaking out the contestants. De Pury says his approach to art is "purely physical." He is going to be the Tim Gunn of the show, but with a distinguished accent.

It's challenge time: The contestants are paired up and each must create a portrait of a colleague.

Simon brings them in to show them their workspace, and Amanda says the room is full of "art supplies from heaven." I love that room. I'm no artist, but I do so adore the supplies. (Having a toddler around the house now is the best excuse ever for getting crayons again. I can't wait until he's ready for paints and markers and colored pencils. But I digress.)

Jaclyn and Judith are paired together, and quickly it becomes clear why there was a warning. Judith is well known for her "p*ssy" works (except Bravo doesn't use the star), in which cats are used to represent another way to call a cat a kitten, as Naughty by Nature has said. So Judith wants to do a portrait of Jaclyn as "proud p*ssy." Jaclyn is offended, though, as mentioned above, said body part is represented, though covered with a star, on canvas in a realistic painting hanging in the other room. "I have no idea how she might get that idea from me upon first impression." Bravo helpfully pans across her self-portrait to remind us, or maybe her.

Trong and John are paired, too. John hopes his portrait can live up to Trong's coolness.

Nicole and Peregrine Honig are also paired. Some of Peregrine's work is part of the permanent collection at the Whitney, which happened when she was 22 and calls a "mind-blowing moment." She asks Nicole if she can portray her in a state of undress, but Nicole doesn't look too thrilled. We learn that she grew up in her dad's woodshop and works with her hands, walking the line between design and artistry.

Jaime Lynn and Amanda are a pair. Jaime Lynn, who does a lot of frilly, fantasy-based works, says, "I'm not just a ditzy, Christian blonde Barbie wannabe person. I'm an artist!" *jazz hands*

Miles and Nao (who is wearing a T-shirt with her first and last name on it, in case we forget who she is) are paired up, but instead of talking, Miles is unpacking his tools and annoying Nao.

Erik and Mark are a pair. Erik says he's been in the art world for about six hours. Mark Velasquez does a lot of burger-flipping during the day and "shooting scantily clad models in weird costumes" at night. "This is it, you know, this is the dare-to-be-great situation."

Simon interrupts them to tell them they have a surprise, and it's Sarah Jessica Parker, the executive producer of this show. She tells them, "Be brave, be competitive, be yourselves!"

Abdi and Ryan are working together, and Abdi shoots Ryan with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth after he says he's a chain smoker and gets to work on the painting. He interviews that Ryan says he's a chain smoker and then adds that he's vegetarian. "I think it's kind of funny that he doesn't mind killing himself, but he doesn't want to hurt any animals."

Jaclyn says she usually portrays herself or other young women, so dealing with someone older is going to be a challenge. "Or, wiser or more mature, I should say," she adds.

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Miles' first step is to build a darkroom for his screenprinting, and he is all over the place. Nao starts making a map of his activity through the room and trying to find ways to represent his activity. "Getting into the mind of Miles is not easy," she says.

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Erik scans Mark's face with a clown nose, and Mark photographs Erik looking angry holding his hands out with the letters KITTENZZ written across them. Jaclyn is offended. (I made that last part up.)

Amanda tries to capture Jaime Lynn's love of pattern with her abstract painting.

Miles takes a photo of Nao pretending to be dead so he can make a "death portrait." His work requires lots of tools and it's really loud.

Peregrine paints Nicole nude, though Nicole is not actually nude. Miles says, "Nicole is intimidatingly good-looking, but so is Judith."

Judith joins the trash-talking and says that Jaime Lynn's piece is "work that people do when they're squiggling and cutting out," and Erik's piece is like a high-school project. Meow! Um, so to speak.

Simon comes in to talk with the contestants about their works so far in his awesome Swiss accent.

He doesn't get Amanda's work, which seems to be based on what Jaime Lynn is wearing instead of who she is. He likes Nao's concept, not how it looks. Erik has finished early and is freaking out. Simon checks out Miles' fort and seems impressed.

I just noticed that Mark's caption says "fry cook" instead of "realist painter" or whatever.

Simon announces that this challenge's winner gets immunity.

Amanda's concerned that her abstract work doesn't have the level of representational detail that the others' work does.

Miles then has a major setback: The bulb in his setup for exposing the screen print broke, so he thinks he's sunk, and his OCD "kicks in," he says.

Weirdly, they don't even see their living space until the end of the night. It's colorful, and they exclaim over it, but not to Real World or Big Brother levels. Probably because they have other things to worry about. Like the fact that they have talent at things other than being on reality television.

Montage of artists working on details.

Miles tries to make something that works despite his broken bulb. He's not going to be left with nothing to show, so he'll be fine.

Nao wanders around and starts giving people feedback and suggestions. Nao, do you have a cool Swiss accent? No? Then step off.

Gallery time!

The permanent panel of judges includes Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York magazine, and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, art adviser and galleris, and Bill Powers, gallery owner.

John's portrait of Trong shows him in painted silhouette from several angles, and I think it's cooler than his triangle self portrait. Trong's portrait of John has several faces of John painted on snakeskin paper and placed in a cube. Aww, many-sided, I get it! (Yes, I am not an art critic.)

Mark's portrait of Erik has been heavily Photoshopped so he looks beaten -- the dichotomy of that with the "kittenzz" on the knuckles does crack me up. I appreciate the humor of it for sure. Erik's painting of Mark's squished clown face on a paint palette is ... kind of weird. Erik says he's never seen his work in a gallery setting, but it fits in. Not sure I can agree. (But I used the word dichotomy! Maybe I am an art critic.)

Nicole thinks Peregrine captured part of her, but not all of her (she means personality and character-wise). Jaime Lynn says her painting of Amanda has glitz and nobility.

Miles is OK with how his work turned out, but he can't figure out what the judges think about it.

Jaclyn says that, "For her age, Judith is kind of fun and humorous with the kind of bright colored clothes she wears," but she's also sad and serious. Judith's portrait of Jaclyn says "Proud P*ssy" (without the asterix) in black letters across a purple background and has a little cat's nose and whiskers in the middle. That's my interpretation anyway.

Ryan is concerned about the scale of his work compared with Abdi's.

The judges want to talk to the following artists "for the crit": Abdi, Erik, Amanda, Mark, Miles and Nao. Everyone else is safe.

Miles tells them about his death portrait, but the judges want to know about the plastic -- he explains that it's an ode to the plastic in her self portrait. Nao explains that she's recorded Miles' activity, but they don't think this is a portrait at all. She respectfully disagrees, saying that it's a portrait of his process. There is a tiny photo of Miles behind the bigger piece, and China says from most angles you miss that. "If they're not paying attention, that's not my problem. ... I'm not responsible for your experience of my work."

Erik says he is trying to contain Mark's clowniness. Bill Powers isn't feeling it. Jerry Saltz calls him out for using his lack of training as an excuse. Erik finally says, "A professional might know one way of doing something, but for an amateur, the possibilities are endless." Mark says Erik has an aggressive appearance, but he's basically a pussycat, which was what he wanted to portray. Jeanne says portraiture has been taken over by photography, and, "You are really right on for today."

Amanda says she wanted to capture the essence of Jaime Lynn (but she is again describing her entirely by how she looks and what she's wearing, which seems kind of shallow) -- Jerry says that "to no one else will it ever be a portrait."

Abdi wanted to capture Ryan's intensity. China says you can't miss this portrait when you walk in, and Jeanne says he absolutely captured his subject.

The judges deliberate. Bill liked the variety. They talk about their favorites. Miles' names comes up first. Abdi is next -- they think it was fantastic and has a lot to offer and he absolutely captured his subject. They loved the spirit Mark captured, and they think his work has the possibility of commercial success. (Unlike Top Model, this isn't disparaging, as far as I can tell.)

The bad stuff. Bill says Erik's piece embarrassed him. Nao was lost in Miles' head, Jeanne says. Jerry says it was just a minimalist painting. Jerry says he wouldn't have known Amanda's work was a portrait, and Jeanne damningly says, "It looks to me like very good wallpaper." Ouch!

So who is the first winner? It's Miles! D'oh! I was pulling for Abdi, but I think he'll be doing well in future challenges.

But most importantly, who is out? It's Amanda. "Your work of art didn't work for us," China says. Heh. It's no "Pack your knives and go," but it'll do. She takes down her self portrait as the representation of her elimination.

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