Real to Reel

New York

Left: Work of Art host China Chow. Right: Work of Art contestant Peregrine with Sarah Jessica Parker and Work of Art winner Abdi. (Photos: Barbara Nitke/Bravo)

LAST WEDNESDAY, parents, press, and punters joined artists and “celebrity guest judges” like Will Cotton and Richard Phillips at the “world-famous Brooklyn Museum” for the finale viewing party of Bravo’s Work of Art. I would have just watched at home, but I ended up giving in to visions of a glamorous gathering of Bravo reality TV stars—something, I imagined, like the network’s summertime promo, staged on a Manhattan rooftop, in which “Bravolebs” like Bethenny and Rachel Zoe buss cheeks and Millionaire Matchmaker Patti Stanger cavorts on a couch with a live tiger.

Instead, about two hundred mostly non-celebs congregated in the institution’s shingled-glass lobby, a surprising number of attendant journalists admitting that they were Brooklyn Museum virgins. “It’s a bit like the student union of an okay university. Or a new train station in a European city,” a writer said. “A small one,” he clarified.

“This is weird,” observed artist and Episode Two guest judge Jon Kessler, sidling up to the wine bar. “The entire show was actually filmed in a really short time span, you know. So when Jeanne [Greenberg Rohatyn] left for a couple of days, it was as if she were gone for weeks.” It’s like Wonderland, where years can pass down in the rabbit hole without a second going by in real life.

I pondered the rise of art “celebrities,” their seeming implausibility. It used to be that young, unformed artists or inspired crazies might aspire to be Warhol Superstars. Now the artists and inspired crazies want to be NBC Universal superstars (and big Hollywood superstars want exhibitions at LA MoCA). The network that brought us The Real Housewives of Orange County, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Real Housewives of New York City, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, and The Real Housewives of DC has recalibrated Warholian principles of stardom and mechanical reproduction to build a highly efficient fame machine on the sticky baseboards of camp and bathos.

Left: China Chow; Work of Art contestants Peregrine, Abdi, and Miles; Work of Art judge Bill Powers; and designer Cynthia Rowley. (Photo: Barbara Nitke/Bravo) Right: Work of Art contestant Nao with Countess Luann deLesseps.

Just before showtime, the door opened and in trotted Countess Luann deLesseps, a real Bravoleb (Real Housewives of New York City) with her own catchy dance-club hit (“Money Can’t Buy You Class”) and even an etiquette book (Class with the Countess). Was she a fan of the show? “My niece is Nicole, so of course I was rooting for her,” she said, referring to one of the contestants eliminated in the penultimate episode. So . . . they’re like reality-show royalty? “Of course!” my friend went off: “The Countess is always talking about her Native American heritage, and Nicole did that piece where she talks about her Native American heritage . . . ”—connecting the Bravo dots.

Could there ever be a Work of Art/Real Housewives crossover? “It’s Bravo—anything is possible!” producer Andy Cohen laughed, twinkling like a gay Willy Wonka playboy. I considered that this manic-looking arbiter of water-cooler chatter was the most powerful person in the room. Either him or Sarah Jessica Parker.

At last it was time for the show. Sitting up front, I had the unsettling privilege of watching the “final three” and the judges watch themselves on the big projected screen, a spectacular reality-feedback loop that left everyone discombobulated—a test for even hardened vets of simulacra. What was most surprising, though, was how much everyone there seemed to like one another, the thrill/trauma of being on the show obviously functioning as potent social glue. When judge Bill Powers criticized Miles’s work on screen, the “real” Powers leaned over to Miles: “Sorry, man.” “It’s OK,” Miles said, and you could tell he meant it. It’s just TV, after all. (Feelings couldn’t be hard anyway, given that Miles just scored an exhibition at Powers’s Half Gallery opening later this month. Now we can start using his last name.)

Left: Work of Art judge Jerry Saltz with Bravo executive Andy Cohen. (Photo: Barbara Nitke/Bravo) Right: Miles and Bill Powers.

When Abdi won, everyone hooted and hollered. “This show is going to change people’s lives,” he said, taking the microphone when the screening was over. He thanked the judges, the production staff, and his mom, then began to ramble. If only reality had the virtue of reality-show editors. “There are always going to be people who are haters,” he said of the show. “People hate on Obama, even though he’s the man!” Noticeably scattered cheers.

You could tell how much everyone wanted to be famous.

“This wasn’t one of my shining episodes,” Powers noted after all was said and done. “My favorite moment of mine was when I told Ryan that ‘sometimes you have to close the door on cool,’ ” he said, considering. “Which might be a bastardization of a Basquiat quote, but what is he going to do, sue me?”

Another writer riffed: “If someone were to describe this event out of context it would be the greatest conceptual art piece ever.” It did have the requisite weirdness of art, but beyond the dizzying levels of mediated uncanniness, the residual payoff was unclear. At least it was fun. For all the complaints about how “unreal” this art-reality-game-show is, isn’t the real crux its hyperreality, the way it exaggerates parts of the art world we love to hate? Artists do often work on deadline (exhibitions?), with outrageous assignments (exhibition “themes”?), under crazy competitive demands (art prizes?), in close quarters (Bushwick studios?), for a shot at absurd “jackpots.”

When it was time to go, the show’s staff and participants made their way to cars to take them to a real afterparty at East Village dive Lit. “C’mon, Miles!” WoA host China Chow was shouting across the courtyard, and then Miles was darting forward, hopping into a black sedan with Chow and the guy who played Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People. Elegance is learned, my friends.

Left: Work of Art contestant Jaclyn with Countess Luann deLesseps and a friend. Right: Work of Art contestant Nicole (left) with Abdi (right).