Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “The Big Show”
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Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist: “The Big Show”

One of the reasons I signed up to recap Work Of Art is that I like shows about the creative process. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed Project Runway, and I thought I’d be getting something similar with this show. But Work Of Art never did a terribly good job of investigating process—despite all the footage from the artists' studio, I often had only a vague idea of how the artists had developed their works in the act of crafting them. It’s the show’s biggest shortcoming, and I hope they address it for the second season (which appears to be happening, judging by the casting calls throughout tonight’s airing).

It wasn’t a fatal flaw, though. Instead of process, Work Of Art focused more on concept—specifically, inspiration and presentation, the things that happen on either end of physically creating a work. In these respects, the show did a pretty good job, better than I expected for a basic-cable TV show. Most episodes gave me a grasp of what was driving the artists—how they arrived at their ideas—which was a valuable insight in evaluating they work they ultimately produced. At first, this inside knowledge felt kind of like cheating, because there was no way to assess the works “on their own,” but of course there’s no such thing as “on their own.” There’s always a context, and the reality TV format provided an interesting one.

Tonight’s season finale was heavy on context, as Simon took on the standard finale ritual of visiting each artist’s home for a check-in. First on the itinerary was Peregrine, who greeted Simon in her huge wonderland of a working space, surrounded by Seussian brass instruments. She introduced her husband. “You are a jazz musician?” Simon asked. “Jazz musician and horn sculptor,” Mr. Peregrine said, because hell yes, if you have “horn sculptor” on your business card, you’d better own that shit. Then Peregrine strapped on an elaborate two-person horn for her husband to play. It sounded very cool, and I would have liked to spend more time with the horn guy, but there was also this art show to do. So we moved on.

Abdi and Miles’ visits were quick and standard. Abdi’s mom loves him; so do Miles’ parents. Revelations from their past: They both have been just super-duper at art for a while now. In the mentoring sessions, Simon was troubled by an over-technical quality in Abdi’s work, and he was encouraged by Miles’ ideas, although not to the bubbly extent we’ve often seen from The World’s Most Enthusiastic Swiss Man.

In New York, the artists prepared their exhibitions in Simon’s auction house. Miles and Peregrine had no problems, while Abdi once again struggled with a hastily completed sculptural piece—various limbs and appendages were cracking away from his fallen basketball heroes as he chiseled away excess plaster. What is it with this guy? Did Abdi have any trouble-free sculptures in his Work Of Art run? (Maybe the TV-head one?)

The showtime was a big, happy reunion. Former guest judges Andres Serrano and Richard Phillips noted how much more awesome the artists seemed now, in comparison to the early-season bunch of sucks they had to deal with. Nao offered some sharp observations from within her outfit/cocoon, an explosion of fabric and bird netting, making us rue the day she got kicked off in a gimmicky double elimination. Executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker assessed the artists and marveled, “It’s great and exciting to see that they DO have futures!” Indeed, they may now continue to exist, thanks to their patron SJP, a modern-day Medici.

Then it was time to judge a winner, because this was also a game show, being played for no small prize, either. The surprise was that Miles lost, although once the gallery show was underway, it was clear that the judges couldn’t justifiably award Miles the win. His work was too procedural in any setting, and especially in a show like this one that doesn’t value process.

I felt that Miles was in trouble as soon as I heard his source of inspiration—he had been taking photos of surveillance videos at a local White Castle, and he learned that one of his subjects, a homeless man, had frozen to death days after Miles took his picture. It could have been the basis of something profound. Here was this discarded person, and the only known record of him was Miles’ cameraphone recording of a fuzzy surveillance feed. What a ludicrous, paltry imprint to leave behind. Was there any humanity to be found in that inadequate digital file?

Maybe, but Miles didn’t find it. He didn’t even look. This work depended on Miles’ ability to tell a story with his pieces, which has never been his strength—he’s succeeded by creating beautiful, logical structures for the viewer to engage with. The ultra-zoomed-in pixel art was boring; he willfully squandered his inspiration, and what remained was idiosyncratic squares. In the Q&A with judges, he retold the story of the homeless man, knowing what a great TV moment it would make, but he could not connect the dots from that sad moment to his emotionless piece. A huge disappointment.

Peregrine took some chances. Her county-fair theme ran the risk of devolving into kitsch, and her unborn-fawns taxidermy could have been cloying, to say the least. I think she avoided the trap on both counts. Positioning the fawn photo as a sideshow in the fair made it come across as a bizarre, provocative corner case of life/death rather than maudlin Mitch-Albom-bestseller fodder. I wasn’t quite as enraptured by the boy’s-head sculpture as the judges were, but I did like her horse as an adult take on the My Little Pony template. In tandem with the cotton-candy machine that spat fragments of sugar throughout the gallery, Peregrine’s sculptures made the sweet seem stifling. I would have given her the win.

That said, I’m not breaking any furniture after seeing Abdi take the $100,000 prize. I’ve come to accept the fact that a lot of Abdi’s work, especially his sculpture, doesn’t come across well on screen. His fallen angels of basketball stardom looked shabby to me, partly because they were not photographed well by the Work Of Art crew, and also because the first time I saw them, they were a craggy mess, and it was hard to shake that image. I agreed with Jerry Saltz’s take that the “Home” painting was melodramatic, but only because of that on-the-nose title. In general, Abdi’s street scenes were more striking and layered than the pulpy stuff he was making earlier in the season. I was not taken with his inverse-color self-portrait, which looked pat compared to the more quiet, spiritual image he created in last week’s episode. In any case, it seems that the judges awarded the prize based on their perception of artistic “spark,” which makes Abdi a fitting winner. I’ll check out his Brooklyn Museum exhibit, since it’s in my hood and all.

That wraps it up for the first season of this strange show. Like a lot of you, I wasn’t sure whether this idea would work on a Bravo TV show, but I think that fitfully, it did. In its more honest moments amid the reality-TV fun, Work Of Art managed to provoke some thought on some weighty issues of art criticism. The discussions in the comment threads have been evidence of that—not only have I loved reading them, but they’ve played a big part in shaping my reading of the show. At the outset, I didn’t know if people would want to chat about deep thoughts like the relationship between art and artist or the fuzzy bounds of collaboration and authorship. But we had a ton of thoughtful exchanges on the deep stuff, and also we got to laugh at China Chow’s clothes. I’ll count that as a win.

Stray Observations:

— A couple of second-season questions. First, which of the judges should come back? I say Jeanne and maybe Jerry Saltz; Bill never added much. I’d say get rid of China too, but I did have fun watching her transformation from Fake Happy China to Fake Stern China every week. (Although Seemingly Genuine Crying China took some of the fun out of that.) The only absolute lock in the cast is Simon. I might not watch if Simon isn’t back, out of petulant protest.

— Second question: What sort of challenges would you like to see next season? I think part of the reason that Work Of Art gave short shrift to process is that the challenges weren’t very interesting. They were too general, and it was too easy for the contestants to ignore the “rules” of a challenge altogether—indeed, that was the winning strategy most of the time.

— When did it become the next great American artist?

— From Miles’ artist statement printed on the wall outside his exhibit: “One repeated indulgence is able to access a bank of memories tied to these moments of release for an individual, extending and connecting each act to both the previous and the next. These connections inevitably compile and strengthen over a life, giving a higher significance to indulgence (and the release found within) during the later stages of existence.” In other words, when you eat an ice-cream cone, it reminds you of other times you ate an ice-cream cone. The freeze-frame of Miles’ statement may be the top bullshit moment of the whole season.

— It was odd and refreshing to see a reality-show finale in which the contestants were so supportive of each other, and not just through gritted teeth.

— “Do you see the face of Jesus?”

— How about Erik with those hot orange-tinted shades? He was going straight from the gallery to an Entourage extras casting call.

— “You’re a REAL ARTIST TO THE CORE.”

— Not to belabor the point, but really, thanks for reading and for the comments. This was my first regular TV Club thing (for those who don’t read the games section, that’s usually where you’d find me), so all the engaging discussion put me at ease and made it a great time. I’m also doing Project Runway now, probably not a surprise given my oft-expressed affection for that show, so if you haven’t joined me over in those recaps, I’d love to have you.

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