To the dismay of some and the euphoria of others, Bravo’s ten-week pop-cultural experiment of bringing fine arts to the masses has drawn to a close. Work of Art began receiving lashings from the art world before the series even began, and I can’t say I completely disagree with some of the criticism.
But as judge Bill Powers points out in his blog this week, there’s more to consider: “Thanks to the million plus viewers who watched every week. Added together that makes around ten million virtual visits to the TV show, something like three times as many people who went to MoMa last year.”
After spending countless months hearing of cuts in state arts funding and watching institutions throughout Atlanta close their doors, I find it hard to turn my nose up at something that’s reinvigorating interest in the arts. Even if some of it is at the altar of reality TV.
Jerry Saltz conducts a long discussion in his closing words noting that the show’s impact can be seen in comment boxes across the interwebs. Work of Art has in fact shown us more than just catfights: Viewers engaged with this show in a critical and meaningful way. If that can translate into new audiences visiting our arts communities, then more power to it.
The final three
Everyone seems to agree that the three finalists—Peregrine Honig, Miles Mendenhall, and Abdi Farah—each produced well-executed bodies of work that could easily stand alongside exhibits at most at any gallery. When given a $5,000 budget and three months to prepare, the artists demonstrated the staggering disparity between what can be created in one day and what can be brought to life over a span of time. Each artist’s exhibition showed exponential growth compared to what we saw ten weeks before.
As Simon traveled to visit our three contestants at their homes one month prior to the final exhibition (à la Project Runway), the identity of each became far more apparent in their work. Peregrine and her jazz musician husband’s Kansas City studio was covered in ephemera, musical instruments, and whimsical collections. I couldn’t help but see Miles’s snow-covered Minneapolis surroundings reflected in his stark compositions. And Abdi and his mother’s neat suburban home, and Abdi’s basement studio, was just as I had imagined it. Returning home to their studios allowed the artists to dig deeper.
Peregrine created a carnival entitled Fair Game that reflected her experience on show. I was happy to see that she allowed herself to let loose and go to town with the colors, materials, and whimsy we began to see in these final weeks of the show.
I agreed with the judges that some editing would have been useful; Peregrine’s colorful frames seemed unnecessary and were better suited to the exhibit’s gift shop. But her combination of drawings and sculpture was a pleasant marriage. The artist hired carnival employees who could be seen throughout her space, brushing the mane of her pony sculpture and serving up circus snacks. The cotton candy (which appeared in every single shot of the opening, even in the other artists’ areas) was a perfect touch.
Peregrine’s galleries were clearly the most popular and inviting. While popular does not equal great, the mood was as much a part of her exhibition as the artwork itself.
Standouts were a small wax head exhibited by itself and a large photograph of twin stillborn deer. These two stood apart from the oversaturated saccharine of the rest of the exhibit. They had an external energy, as Jeanne said, as well as internal dialogue.
Miles continued to work with screen-prints and his almost scientific sensibility of deconstruction and abstraction. For his exhibit he used cell phone photographs he took of a homeless man at a White Castle restaurant near his house, and presented them at different levels of visual reduction.
Compared to his previous prints, these works were energized by the fact that the man died three days after Miles shot the photos. These images are the only documentation of that fact.
I was surprised to see the judges dismiss Miles’s work so quickly. His deconstruction of photography was conceptually intriguing as a parallel to the man’s fading existence.
The final contestant and winner of the competition was Abdi, whose work truly matured during his three months away from New York. Unlike the other two, Abdi’s youth and freedom of direction allowed him to take the criticism he received on the show and put it towards some rigorous soul-searching.
Throughout the challenges so far, Abdi’s technique as a figurative painter and sculptor has been evident, but these skills were not always put to the best use. In last week’s episode, he created a stunning full-body portrait of himself reclining in a spiritual state. I had hoped this was a sign of where he would go next.
Abdi’s final exhibition included life-sized sculptures of black figures clad in athletic apparel laid out on the gallery floor (which, as Paddy Johnson suggested, could have been posed after the Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam). Paintings along the wall depict figures carrying baggage with their backs to the viewer. These were less intriguing and seemed a bit dated in their aesthetic.
The piece guest judge David LaChapelle responded to the most, and what I thought looked to be Abdi’s strongest work, was a painting of a body bag entitled Home. It was both haunting and peaceful and played up his competence as a painter.
Each exhibition was so vastly different from the others that, after Sarah Jessica Parker’s overly exaggerated “WOW!” in each room, I was at a loss as to who would take home the prize. In the end, I am glad it was Abdi.
Both Peregrine and Miles will do fine on their own. Miles certainly has an interesting future ahead of him, and I have no doubt we will be seeing more of in the coming years. Peregrine, too, has an artistic spirit that would not have been made or broken by a win.
These last ten weeks have not been in vain. I was impressed by each of these artists and was relieved to see their final exhibitions. Although I’m not sure if I’d be ready for another season of Work of Art—one was enough—I think the foray of fine art into the world of reality TV has served its purpose.
This is the final installment of Susannah Darrow’s column, On TV: Work of Art. Click here for commentary on episodes 1-9.