"WORK OF ART" RECAP: The Next Great Artist Was Chosen on TV, as Since Time Immemorial

Every Thursday, ARTINFO has reviewed the carnage and glory of the previous night's episode of Bravo's art-world reality show Work of Art. Last night's episode was, sadly, the finale, but be sure to visit ARTINFO tomorrow for interviews with the winner of Work of Art and the two runners-up.

Photo by Barbara Nitke/Courtesy, Bravo

Last night saw an odd group gathered at the Brooklyn Museum, where the lobby was packed with luminaries of the art world (at least as defined by Bravo in the first season of "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist"), gathered together to celebrate this show for which reality itself had been rewritten, so that it starred them. This is an art world where the greats include David LaChapelle, Andres Serrano, Will Cotton, and other men making tabloid-ready art (Michael Jackson! Piss Christs! Naked Katy Perry on a cotton-candy cloud!). This is an art world where Jerry Saltz manages to teleport across crowds to slip sly quips into multiple conversations simultaneously, and materialize with his signature arms-crossed-half-lean pose in every photo. (Oh wait, that's the actual art world, never mind.)

After much mingling/wall-flowering during which ARTINFO, knowing everyone's first and last names, hometown, and source of MFA degree -- but known to the contestants only as a disembodied voice asking weird questions over the phone -- felt ready to be crowned Queen of the Creeps. But then, things settled into place: Sarah Jessica Parker arrived and everyone had something to talk about. "She's so tiny!" began a hundred simultaneous conversations.

But while these weighty colloquia abounded, Saltz confided a bombshell. Apparently from the very first episode of "Work of Art," clues to the identity of the eventual winner were baked into the show -- a kind of adumbration that is in fact seeded throughout all reality shows by their canny, all-knowing producers. Reality shows, it seems, operate on a sort of Chomskyan deep grammar whereby we already know the structure intuitively from the start.

Of course there are easier ways to figure this stuff out. For example, ARTINFO noticed that Abdi Farah's mom was in the crowd schmoozing and looking happy, so we were pretty sure from the get-go that he had won. Meanwhile, Steve Coogan kept talking glowingly about "Eat, Pray, Love," the movie, so the suspicion that we'd slipped into a parallel universe was confirmed. For the record, ARTINFO thinks Steve Coogan is the coolest, no matter his filmic/literary tastes.

And then we took our seats.

China Chow, wearing a startlingly plain black dress with what looked like a bedazzled gladiatorial arm guard, stood before the screen and -- I'm sure by now you will be shocked to hear this -- got weepy. "I'm so emotional," she gushed. "I don't know why." We're not really sure, either. Then she frantically bustled around, stepping over ropes that are there to protect art. Like, real art: Jean-Michel Othoniel's "The Secret Happy End," a 2008 sculpture of a covered wagon. Brooklyn Museum contemporary art curator Eugenie Tsai wrung her hands and glared at Chow in disbelief. "What the fuck is she doing?" Tsai asked aloud. When someone finally pressed play, all hell broke loose. The crowd kept screaming "Jerry!" every time Saltz appeared onscreen, which briefly confused ARTINFO into thinking we were at a taping of "Jerry Springer," and that there would be a twist where Simon de Pury is pregnant with psychic quintuplets. Also, every time the Brooklyn Museum was mentioned, everyone cheered. It was unclear whether this raucous response was A) genuine exuberant affection for the historic institution, B) contractual on the part of the contestants and their families, or C) because there was an open bar.

But enough fruitless speculation. This is the final recap. Here is what ARTINFO remembers from the ultimate episode of the show, which begins with the contestants heading home to prepare work for the final exhibition, to be held at the Phillips de Pury gallery.


Simon de Pury drives his own car? Can you imagine administering a driving test to this Swiss super-gentleman? He probably showed up at the DMV in a golden chariot that drew the sun behind it, all the way along I-95. His first stop is Kansas City, home to Peregrine Honig and her giant bear of a jazz-musician husband. (He briefly stood next to Sarah Jessica Parker last night, and the difference in scale approached the sublime.)

Our first thought upon seeing Peregrine's studio was that it turns out you can get simply amazing real estate in Kansas City. Peregrine then distracted us when she referred to her conjugal union -- in which a grizzly has obviously overcome its savage nature to shack up with a tree elf (and who wouldn't, for real estate like that?) -- as "a pretty traditional marriage." She's working on lots of wax casts of ponies and little boys' heads and Victorian picture frames, along with drawings of girls puking. We were really into it already. So was de Pury, who stated, "The fact it is all the people vomiting gives it a kind of edge."

Next Simon, man of the people in his black ribbed down jacket (biting Jerry's winter style, we see), headed to Pennsylvania where he had a charming conversation with Abdi's mom. Abdi showed the auctioneer his depressing basement studio, and de Pury delivered the least convincing, feeblest "terrific" of the entire season. Abdi was making big self-portraits. One was blue. Whatever.

At Miles Mendenhall's house in Minneapolis, de Pury confessed that 20 years ago he visited the city to see Prince. He meant the pop star, apparently, not Prince Albert of Monaco or one of his other regal buddies. Are you allowed to attend a Prince concert in a double-breasted suit? Talking about his artistic development, Miles described how in his youth he constructed "death traps for animals," which was a little unsettling, but not as unsettling as when de Pury said the words "White Castle" -- again, not speaking about a literal pearly palace. Freaky. Miles went back to making his dizzying pixelated abstractions, although these ones are more sinister... more on that later.


The gang reassembled in New York. Miles asked Peregrine why she got a "baby haircut," to which she pointed out that they have the same haircut. Because they both have baby haircuts. But that doesn't stop Miles from hitting on China Chow in the atrium of the Brooklyn Museum, where he, no longer making puffy puppy eyes at Nicole Nadeau, says to Chow, "I'm excited to see what you're going to wear" to the final showdown. He then complimented the bride-of-Big-Bird ensemble Chow was wearing in the scene: "This is good," he said, further adding in a voiceover, "China looks whoa. Double whoa." Anxiety soon creeps back, though, and he says the excitement of waiting for the final round is going to make him "start bleeding from the nose."

What was the point of the get-together in the museum before the show was installed? To announce that one of the works by the winning artist will go up for auction at Phillips de Pury! Cringe. Now they can place their art in the gallery, with the help of a team of be-gloved and laser-level-bearing professional installers. Miles has lots of printouts of pixelated images taken on his cell phone of people at White Castle, one of whom Miles -- a little too gleeful about his good luck -- said was a homeless drunk who died outside the eatery, like, right after Miles photographed him.

Abdi hung some paintings and photos of himself and some other people, and one dead person in a body bag. They really weren't that great. There are some OK sculptures of sprawled out bodies in basketball shorts on the ground. Eh, and derivative to boot: the Air Jordan thing was covered by Hank Willis Thomas, and the "Dying Gaul" stuff didn't add much. (Plus, people in body bags have been done to death by Maurizio Cattelan.) Peregrine, however, was putting together something pretty swell. And we're not just saying that because there was a cotton candy machine and ponies (ponies!) involved. There was also glitter, and vomiting, and a kind of been-there-done-that photograph of taxidermied twin fawns that made Peregrine cry whenever she had to talk about it.

Then cut to that weird interstitial mid-show scene, in which all the contestants gush about how great the Brooklyn Museum is while Renaissance-fair music plays. It's important to note that they cut this part out at the Brooklyn Museum screening, because that is what would have been tacky.

At the opening, David LaChapelle thought he saw the "face of Jesus" in one of Miles's pieces. China Chow thought that Abdi's work "makes you want to cry," which basically means it is something placed in front of her eyes. Sarah Jessica Parker was "really so proud" (and small!). Saltz and Tsai broke down the final projects: "Conceptualist," Saltz said of Miles's showing. "Feminist," Tsai said of Peregrine's. Abdi's was "maybe taking on issues of race," she added. Power trinity of acceptable contemporary art? Check.

In response to Miles's earlier question, Chow was wearing a Saran Wrap dress. Miles got eliminated, and was "so bummed." Peregrine also lost, and said she felt like she lost a lottery ticket -- which she didn't, she lost a reality television show. Abdi was annointed "the next great artist," which we guess is a relief to know -- now we won't have to pay attention to any other artists for a decade or so. Also, the art on this episode was a thousand times better than usual because it wasn't made in like three hours.

But let's head back to last night's party for a moment: after the credits rolled, Abdi decided he should talk to his fans, for a long, long time. (But heck, what could we do? He's the Next Great Artist. Or wait, is he already the Great Artist now? When does "next" kick in? Who has to die first?)

"I had no idea I would learn so much about art," Abdi said, making us wonder what he thought he was there to learn about. The cooking show is down the hall, Great Artist.

"I'm super-speechless," he added, all evidence to the contrary. "There are people who hated on Obama, even though he's the man," he proclaimed, proving, no doubt, some point.

And then it was over, and everyone tried to remember how they got to the Brooklyn Museum and, unable or unwilling to recall the epic schlep, begged for rides in de Pury's golden chariot. ARTINFO felt a little like China Chow, and wanted to cry a tiny, Sarah Jessica Parker-sized tear, and break some art, but stuck to mournfully eating some carrot sticks instead. At least we can come back and visit Abdi's show, which opens on Saturday and will stay up for the next two months. Just think! Two months of Great Art.

-Emma Allen

And Work of Art contestant exit interviews:
Episode 1: Amanda Williams
Episode 2: Trong Nguyen
Episode 3: Judith Braun
Episode 4: Nao Bustamante and John Parot
Episode 5: Jaime Lynn Henderson
Episode 6: Erik Johnson
Episode 7: Ryan Schultz
Episode 8: Mark Velasquez
Episode 9: Nicole Nadeau

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