By Ken Tucker
Updated June 09, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: David Giesbrecht/Bravo
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We were overdue for a reality TV show about the art world. Watching people paint or sketch or sculpt under a time limit is a no-brainer for any producer wanting to combine striking images with the usual backbiting competition, right? So Bravo steps into that void this week. Along with a new edition of its old standby Top Chef (set in Washington, D.C., this season), the network gives us Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.

When it comes to splattering paint and emotions, Work of Art — courtesy of Sarah Jessica Parker’s production company — exceeded my expectations with its debut. Each of the 14 contestants arrives labeled. For example, there’s Abdi, the ”figurative artist”; Nao, the ”performance artist”; Jaime Lynn, the ”illustrator”; and Erik, who makes a clown painting that would be shoddy even by state fair-portraitist standards. The egos roam free: Jaclyn, a former studio assistant for hype master Jeff Koons, says ”people assume someone like me couldn’t be an artist.” Why? Because she’s hot, one is left to assume. When the contestants are assigned to do portraits of each other, Jaclyn has trouble rendering 60ish Judith because she’s ”a lot older than myself.” Ageism knows no artistic boundaries.

Art attempts to make contemporary art palatable to a broad TV audience, much of which remains stuck in the ”My kid could do better than that” attitude toward any kind of nonfigurative work. That’s where the fun of Work of Art resides, in convincing viewers that egomaniacal kooks can make good and bad art, and yes, there are standards besides split-second opinions.

Art apes Project Runway; its Tim Gunn is Simon de Pury, who coaches and critiques the works in progress. What Art needed was a judge with the wit and prickliness of Time magazine’s Robert Hughes, host of one of the best TV art histories ever, the 1980 PBS series The Shock of the New. Lacking a Hughes, the three-person judging panel is lucky to have Jerry Saltz, New York magazine’s excellent art critic, who isn’t a showy personality and offers succinct comments in the clearest language.

Top Chef, meanwhile, is now pure comfort food. We know we’ll get one cocky cook who’s there to ”win it all” (in this case, spiky-haired grinner Angelo) and another contestant whose skill set seems so far beyond the rest, the suspense becomes whether or not his nerves or his hubris will trip him up (that would be the calm but relentless Kenny).

I’m glad Eric Ripert has been officially added to the judging table. He’s serene but pointed in his criticisms. So far, I’m not clear on why our nation’s capital will add fresh life to the series, although I’d be shocked if at least one competition didn’t nod to the First Lady’s healthy-food campaign. Work of Art: B+ Top Chef: B

Episode Recaps

Top Chef

Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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