This summer, Bravo's got two visual-arts reality shows for its audience of "affluent influencers," aka "affluencers," i.e., coastal couch potatoes vegging out on reproduction Knoll sofas. The network is very slightly getting in touch with its roots as a culture channel, harkening back to that era when its signature show was Inside the Actor's Studio, hosted by James Lipton and his leer and their whiskers. Very slightly. The gaudier of the new shows is Double Exposure (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET), a sort of Bravo-after-dark soap opera. Themes include the aesthetics of desire, the symbiosis of artist and muse, and Lindsay Lohan missing her call time. It's artsy by the standards of the ripe reality-show slumming season—artzy with a z.
High-glossily trashy-good, Double Exposure is a diptych portraying the principals of Markus Klinko & Indrani Photography, fabricators of fashion spreads, magazine covers, and celebrity marketing materials. With their innate sense of tackiness and their weakness for heavy-handed classical gestures, they will never exactly be Irving Penn, but they aim to elicit a literal frisson and occasionally succeed. Despite Markus' ever-roiling obsession with the projected hotness of his female subjects—"hot!" he shouts; "so hot!" he cries—the duo's best pictures have a visceral chill to them. The visual textures variously suggest spoonfuls of good pudding, the steel tubes of a Corbusier chaise lounge, and bronze sculptures of sirens and sphinxes.
The photographers' résumés are not without intrigue. Markus, who hails from Switzerland, once had a serious career in classical musical klinking the harp. Indrani, perhaps more radical than Elena Kagan and Michelle Robinson combined, wrote a Princeton thesis titled In Pursuit of Happiness: Desire in Hinduism's Vedanta Philosophy and Practice. They met when he was, as the job counselors say, transitioning into photography, and she was trying to be a model. They dated, and they quit dating. An exotic mutant relationship emerged from the radioactive crater of their failed romance. Where normal exes decide to "just be friends" or "duck one another on the sidewalk," Markus and Indrani formed a creative partnership bearing the stigmata of pathological codependency.
Markus, the primary shootist, is possessed of a few traits that have historically served people in his field quite well, evincing talents for flattery, patience, forceful composition, and tantrum-tossing arrogance. His delusions of grandeur are nothing less than effervescent: "A celebrity that gets photographed by us—it's the ultimate moment in their career because they're never gonna look better after." Elsewhere, Markus tells the camera, "I like to consider myself the James Bond of fashion photography." Though there can be no doubt that he does, he looks here more like a Bond bad guy. Shot from low angles, he is gaunt and monumental, and his hair glints a villainous white blond.
Indrina, meanwhile, is a strutting brunette. Seeing her in her first few minutes on-screen, you might start thinking that she is merely Mark's test model and arm candy. (For one thing, to believe so would be a way of rationalizing both her chronic petulance and her habit of slinking around the workplace while clad, if that's not too generous a word, in Gucci dresses.) However, once you swallow your guilt and continue to watch Double Exposure through another commercial break, you realize you need to take her seriously. A series of vignettes clarify that she and Markus are equal partners. She has a good eye for color, a gift for Photoshop, and—what Markus most profoundly lacks—a basic working knowledge of human behavior. She further serves as his second photographer, personnel manager, chief lighting technician, spokeswoman, chauffeuse, and sulking superego.
From a psychological standpoint, Markus and Indrani are essential to each other's emotional needs in ways that would require all the quacks in Austria to explore. "I always encourage Markus to flirt," she says during one fashion shoot, as if unaware that providing such encouragement is a waste of her valuable time. Maybe she just doesn't really how subtle Markus is in his approach, as when he very subtly asks a model, "Are you single?" Naturally, the dynamic between Indrani and Markus creates a certain energy on the set.
It is not clear that this energy is clean. What makes Markus "hot" may well be contributing to global warming. Women's Health is a perfectly good magazine, and its photo editors are bright people, but snapping pictures of Eve for its pages needn't be a fraught existential adventure. Markus is a sadist by temperament and principle. Standing with a model on railroad tracks, he roars loader than the approaching train. "We could die right here," he says. "Who cares as long as you get the shot?" Well, there's the assigning editor, for instance, and the interns hoping for references, but he's a weird dude, and there you have it, and Indrani offers him a deconstructed shoulder pad to cry on. She even looks on supportively when Markus does an extremely strange thing by the standards of the glamour industries: Leaning in to give a young model an air kiss, he aims one at her left cheek—a rogue crossover move that a lecher or lover boy can work to his advantage.
None of contestants on Work of Art: The Next Great Artist (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET), which is essentially Project Runway gone to the Saatchi Gallery, would ever attempt that shady lip maneuver. The majority are too polite, and even the megalomaniacs have a sense of politesse. The show is a civilized place—a salon where aspiring artists and judges discuss critical values and aesthetic issues directly, with concision and sincerity. Also, the contestants are saving their lips for kissing ass at studio crit.
The season began with 14 wannabe art stars scratching and gouaching and conceptualizing away in search of the big prize, which includes a solo show at the God-do-I-need-to-move-out-of-Brooklyn Museum. Try rooting for tireless Miles, the baggy-eyed installation artist. Go to Bravo's Web site to relive the dismissal of Trong, who tried to perpetrate a lame-ass metatextual autocritique that wouldn't have impressed any kindergartener familiar with the Postmodernity of SpongeBob SquarePants. Know that each of the artists here is a child of Pop, intuitively and definitionally. Each of them rolls the creative process, the finished work, and her public performance as an artist into an eager consumer package. They're all operators with soundbites on line one.