WORK OF ART: THE NEXT GREAT ARTIST. 11 tonight, Bravo.

BRAVO'S SEARCH for the next great "reality" show competition continues tonight with "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist."

And when I say that it's hard to imagine a show like this existing without the paint-by-numbers template provided by "Project Runway," the show Bravo loved and lost - in court - to Lifetime, I want you to know that I mean it, for once, in the nicest possible way.

Oh, and not just because if this one flops, it's likely to be replaced by "The Real Housewives of Minneapolis-St. Paul."

While it seems at times as if the number of people exposing their trashy lives on television might have reached equilibrium with the number watching them at home, there's always been something special about "Project Runway," something that argued that the most interesting thing about other people wasn't merely their ability to run their mouths.

There are people among us who can do things, whether it's design a dress or dress a dish, that make them stand out in ways that don't fit easily into the traditional TV talent show - of which "American Idol" is only one of the latest iterations - but which might nevertheless be worth celebrating.

Shows like "Runway" and Bravo's "Top Chef" (and even that most blatant "Runway" ripoff, "The Fashion Show") try to do that, and if I lean a bit more toward fashion than food, it may be because while I've been cooking since I was old enough to reach the stove, clothes remain something of a mystery.

Art? I can't honestly even say I know what I like.

Which is why "Work of Art" kind of works for me.

Capturing creativity on camera is never easy, but maybe it's easier when sight's the only sense that really matters.

As one of "Work of Art's" judges, gallery owner Bill Powers, noted during a press conference in January, it can be hard to judge the judging on a show like "Top Chef."

"As a viewer . . . sitting at home, I can't taste it. I can't smell it, so I have to take these judges' words for it, whereas having art in this competition-based format, I think, is a better fit in that as a viewer, you're seeing exactly what we're seeing. And so I think that kind of levels the playing field," he said.

In the tradition of "Runway," the playing field on "Work of Art" might look level, but the players themselves come from different backgrounds and have vastly varying levels of experience (including one who claims none whatsoever).

Among those you might want to keep an eye on: Abdi Farah, 23, a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate from Dover, Pa., who's already won a slew of awards.

Also per "Runway," the contestants get what seems an absurdly limited time to complete projects. The first assignment, which pairs people by their self-portraits and challenges them to do portraits of each other, stirs the pot nicely, especially when the "random" selection matches a young woman who generally paints pictures of herself or other women her age with gray-haired Judith Braun, at 61 the season's oldest contestant.

Model-actress China Chow is "Work of Art's" Heidi Klum, auction house chairman Simon de Pury its Tim Gunn.

For more celebrity sparkle, Sarah Jessica Parker will be dropping in from time to time. She's not just some random art lover: Her production company, Pretty Matches, teamed with Magical Elves ("Top Chef," "Project Runway") to make the show.

Just when I was missing the presence of balky sewing machines, one of the contestants ran into an equipment problem - you may think your 5-year-old could produce this stuff, but there's a surprising amount of heavy machinery involved - and I was able to tick off that box, too.

Did I understand what they were actually up to? Not completely. But based on the first episode, I at least enjoyed listening to them try to explain it.

"There is something morbid about her work and I felt like the only way I was going to get a good handle on her was to make her dead," says one artist tonight in a statement I might like to see on a sampler.

And here's a contestant comeback that someone might want to try on "Runway's" Michael Kors, or on Simon Cowell's replacement on "American Idol": "I'm not responsible for your experience of my work."

Nor is Bravo or any of the other networks trying to find the "next" great anything responsible for actually producing such beings.

The winner of "Work of Art," we're told, will win a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum and $100,000 in cash.

So someone gets paid for doing what he already feels compelled to do. And we get to watch.

That may not be art, but it's not bad television. *

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