August 4th, 2010
New York Magazine’s Art Critic Jerry Saltz is aware that Work of Art is less than revered within the art community, a response which Carolina A. Miranda nicely captured at TIME this week. In his review of last night’s final episode before the finale, Saltz reflected on the experience as he saw it, partly out of an effort to convince his critics that he wasn’t sullying his name through his participation and partly to convince himself of the same:
I know that much of the art world is appalled that an art critic would even be on a reality show. I feel this way sometimes, too. Yet, leaving after this episode I felt more as I do when I’m teaching, and get totally involved with students whose names I will not remember in 24 months. Only, I was pouring everything I had into this TV show and these artists…I began to see that with only one week to go that this whole experience, weirdness, wildness and all, was forming into some sort of larger whole.
I’ve written a great deal about how the show has been a mess of contradictions, so tonight’s episode was a key test of whether or not it would reach some form of cohesive conclusion; as Saltz notes, “involvement” is a key factor in any reality show, wherein we get caught up in each character’s journey and it becomes less about the general premise (finding the next great artist, or the top chef, or the next great fashion designer) and more about choosing which of the final contestants deserves their shot at stardom. It’s a key difference, and I think that Saltz nicely captures what I’ve witnessed from the comfort of my couch: through all of its contradictions, Work of Art is a competition which intensely focuses on the creative process, which makes its conclusion seem like far more of a personal journey than other reality series.
Or, at least it does for the artists who embraced the idea as Saltz did.
I won’t rehash any of yesterday’s argument about Miles and his multi-layered performance throughout the season (except that we can now add exhibitionism to the list of character traits, considering his choreographed turn away from the camera for some rear nudity), but my goodness he sold his journey tonight. By creating a piece which highlighted his process, and by delivering a performance during the critique which captured his inability to rescue himself from that process, Miles created the ultimate finale launching pad: here is an opportunity for an artist shackled by his elaborate methodology to think freely, to escape the confines of a box and perhaps create something truly fantastic. I’m sure the judges likely felt this way anyways: after all, watching from home, I’ve always been looking forward to seeing what Miles could go with more time, more money, and less cameras. However, any chance of Miles flunking out at this late stage of the competition was gone with a piece which really captured his personal journey, another carefully calculated piece from an artist who has been in complete control of his time on the show.
Abdi won the final challenge with a similar methodology, although one rooted less in performance and more in a fairly honest spiritual awakening. While Miles sort of summarized his journey to this point and gestured towards its relevance to the final challenge, Abdi looked to create a piece which suggested that he is ready to step beyond the competition to this point, that his recent missteps are behind him. He succeeded by doing something visually striking, resisting the caricature of his earlier self-portraits and delivering something which was beautifully made and which told a story without being too literal. It was really expertly done, and it was a well-deserved win for an artist who has sort of had to find himself in the midst of the competition (he is, after all, only 22) – if Miles has been crafty and manipulative in his creation of art throughout the show, Abdi has worn his heart on his sleeve, and they represent curious polar opposites who will make for a really intriguing contrast in the finale.
However, the final spot in the finale is somewhat more difficult, as the other remaining artists lack the clear success which Miles and Abdi find in the challenge. What was interesting about Jaclyn was that the series worked to suggest that she could have competed in the challenge if only she hadn’t been sick, and if only Peregrine hadn’t been so adamant that Jaclyn couldn’t use the photograph she took in the apartment before the studio time began. The former point is an unfortunate circumstance, but the show seems to milk it for all it was worth as if to highlight that she wasn’t able to tap into her full potential. And in the latter case, the edit seemed to suggest that Peregrine is in some way “playing the game” by refusing Jaclyn’s request, despite the fact that all she was doing was enforcing the rules of the competition [Edit: However, Jaclyn runs down numerous scenarios where the contestants showed discretion in decisions of this nature which were unseen by the cameras at her blog]. I think we were supposed to think that because of Jaclyn’s illness the contestants were supposed to allow her special treatment, which seems completely ridiculous: I feel bad that she was sick, and that it kept her from stripping naked and photographing herself in nature, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that her art was cold and vacant with no sense of play or creativity. It revealed her, definitively, as a one-trick pony, which is why I was glad to see her go home despite some successful works throughout the competition – I was afraid she would remain, and so I was pleased to see her be the first sent home.
The problem was that it created a challenging decision between Nicole and Peregrine, one which plays into the idea of “constructing a finale” as opposed to really honouring each artist’s journey. I like Peregrine’s work, but I thought that Nicole was the more interesting artist throughout the competition: there were some missteps, but I thought her sculptures successfully captured the essence of each challenge in a way which I don’t think she was given enough credit for. While I think that Nicole still hasn’t discovered her point of view, I thought she showed a real skill for interpreting the challenges and challenging herself with new construction methods and the like. And so to see the judges consider her latest piece vacant and unmoving was frustrating when we saw the amount of work which went into it, and we saw a consistent and clear vision which simply didn’t translate to the gallery floor. I think that, based on the competition itself, Nicole was one of the most successful of the artists, but the judges seemed to believe that her consistency was as a result of her inability to “spread her wings.”
By comparison, while I quite like Peregrine’s approach to art, I feel as if she’s in the finale because the judges want to see what she can do without limitations, rather than because her work within limitations was inspiring. Her tree sculpture was sloppy and uncertain, lacking the clear sense of motivation which Nicole’s piece featured. However, while Nicole’s work is small and intricate, Peregrine’s work is big and bold in a way which I think the show wants to have in the finale, especially when Miles and Abdi’s work is much more muted. There is a certain coldness about Miles’ work in particular, and I think Peregrine represents an important contrast to his particular brand of minimalism, which is why she was chosen over Nicole. She is of a different generation than Miles and Abdi, and her colourful and vibrant aesthetic is something I don’t expect the others to bring to the table (especially considering how much the judges didn’t appreciate Abdi’s caricature). And so while I would prefer Nicole in terms of the work she’s put out during the competition, I can see why the producers would want Peregrine to be part of the finale.
However, in the end the spirit of the competition seemed to shine through: there was a group hug as they said their goodbyes, none of the apparent animosity towards Miles materialized in the final hour, and outside of Peregrine’s entirely justified refusal (echoed by everyone else, let’s remember) to allow Jaclyn to bend the rules of the competition there wasn’t any interpersonal conflict. Instead, it was an hour about people creating art, and capped off a season which was more about that process than about the objectification of the art world.
- Simon de Pury really was a pretty fantastic mentor: his enthusiasm, wonderfully emulated by the contestants in that brief package, was infectious, and his advice and concern managed to be helpful without seeming as if he was impeding their process. It never felt like he guided any particular artist on a path, instead, just offering his reaction and expressing his concern or his appreciation for the piece.
- Note the emphasis on Peregrine and Nicole’s friendship in the early parts of the episode, leading to their standing together for the elimination – calculated, that.
- Normally, if not for the fact that I quite liked Nicole’s work, I’d be really happy about Peregrine’s success – I’m always a fan of when reality contestants go under the radar with some solid work before eventually breaking out (the same thing has happened with Tiffany on Top Chef, which I also enjoyed).
- Not sure if I’m going to be able to see the finale next week, as I’m starting a cross-continent journey early Thursday morning, but I’m hopeful to be able to get to the finale during the first leg of the journey and perhaps comment from the road.