J.D. Beltran on Nao Bustamante - SF Gate


“Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” contestants and host China Chow on Bravo Television debuts tonight at 11 PM EST/PST

The rarified arena of artmaking is about to collide with the not-so-rarified circus of reality television. Tonight, the new series “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” premieres on the BRAVO network. Through a national competition, “Work of Art” selected 14 artists from around the country, working in wide-ranging styles and media. They then were pit against each other through a series of artistic “challenges” — i.e., they were given an assignment and had to come up with an artwork in response, within a limited amount of time. After each challenge, they installed and presented their artwork in a gallery before a panel of judges, and are eliminated, one at a time, until the last one standing gets $100,000 and his or her own show at the Brooklyn Museum.

Many of my friends and colleagues – mostly artists or in the art world – were quite squeamish when they heard this series was going to happen. Reality shows are for housewives! Or people who had too many kids! Or former, aging Beverly Hills 90210 actresses!

But artists?

I was fortunate to actually know one of the contestants, Nao Bustamante, as we both went to theSan Francisco Art Institute. I myself am uncomfortable about thinking about Nao as a “contestant” — I’ve never thought of her (or any of my artist friends, for that matter) as competing for anything – I just think of her as an accomplished artist with a history of making very smart, and sometimes hysterically funny and clever work. Artists in our culture already face a challenge to have what they do taken seriously, and among artists who I know, the prevailing philosophy is that you make your art, you put it out there, and you hope it elicits some kind of response. To be fair, one can imagine that one aspect of what we do can be thought of as a life-long competition — to be able to build a body of work and a reputation as an artist that somehow sets you apart from all the rest, to the point where your art makes the cover of arts magazines, gets into museum collections, wins you a MacArthur Genius Grant, or ultimately notes you in the pages of the art history books. And of course, what might be considered the top prize is that your name and artwork is forever credited with catalyzing some seminal art movement, or introducing some revolutionary concept or idea into the art canon.

“Work of Art,” in contrast, is a contest about making, judging, and attaching a dollar sign on art (and $100,000 on the artist), and doesn’t pretend to be anything but. It places the concept of art as commerce front and center, opening the door to aspects of the art world that many probably would rather be kept hidden. And also at the forefront is the concept of art itself – what is “good” art, what constitutes “quality,” and how art itself becomes embued with value.

And I don’t know anyone – my six-year old, included – who doesn’t have a strong opinion about art. Which makes for fascinating television.

I talked with Nao yesterday about the show, and about what it was like to “compete” as an artist in what I’d consider such a bizarre situation. Unlike a typical studio situation where an artist can create works in the solitude of their own thoughts and studio space, all fourteen of the artists had to make their art in the pressure cooker of the same, shared studio. “That’s the main difference.” said Nao. “There was no place to retreat to – no way of processing my artwork alone. And you can’t leave the space or the people you don’t like. It was like ‘Project Runway’ meets‘Survivor.’

Artist Nao Bustamante on Bravo Television’s “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.”

This lack of privacy and inability to control what was or was not revealed about herself on camera was also a harrowing process of self-de-construction, and then re-construction. “Being on the show built you up by tearing you down. We all have a script of lines within us, and we try to control how that script plays out. You’re expected to play yourself in your own life. I thought it would be like developing myself as a character, but in front of a telephone audience. But what happened is you’re completely pulled out of your life – your life becomes a Petri dish. The layers are pulled off one by one. Everything you constructed for yourself is eroded. It’s like pulling up a map, but finding another one underneath…And then there is the stress of wondering how you’re going to be portrayed, and the power the editors have in re-constructing what happened.”

Was she happy with what she produced? “I hardly work with an assignment-based format. My feelings run the gamut – there was always the issue of time, and the materials you’re dealing with. My time-management skills don’t fit the format of reality TV. I work more like a filmmaker – I’ll think about something, let time pass, sit on the idea, do some research. Sometimes I won’t make it for two years, then when I do, I finish it all at once.” But on “Work of Art,” Nao didn’t have the luxury of time. “Sometimes people were able to nail something even given the constraints, and other times they had to jerry-rig something together at the last minute to get it done. And then you had to get it to the gallery in time for the judging.”

I was curious as to why Nao decided to participate in the show in the first place. “Reality TV is the new space of oral storytelling – it’s where you can see the vulnerable spaces of humanity,” she remarked. And she also was inspired by her predecessors. “I remembered seeing the video ofTony Labat on ‘The Gong Show.’ Salvador Dali was on ‘What’s My Line.’ And Mel Chin designed the curtains for ‘Melrose Place.’ I see myself as continuing the genre of television intervention.”

For Nao, success isn’t necessarily the money, or even the solo show at the Brooklyn Museum. “It’s going to be really interesting how this plays out, what it means about judging art. I feel my art is working simply when it resonates with someone – if it sticks in someone’s mind, like a burr…its about the idea, the dialogue.” If you’re in the Bay Area, you can see Nao’s work yourself at her exhibition at Baer-Ridgway Exhibitions, which opens on June 19th.

But we also have Season 1 of “Work of Art” to find out if she wins the money, anyway. (And Nao says, “Follow my twitter for real time snark during the episodes.” http://www.twitter.com/naobustamante) It all starts tonight, 11 PM EST/PST, on BRAVO.

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