Work of Art Winner Abdi Farah Limps Into the Brooklyn Museum


It’s my rule not to hammer a disappointing first show by a newbie artist, because, while art can certainly be its own reward, an artist’s life can be harsh—lack of material comforts, benefits, security, etc.

And besides, there’s always the chance I’ve misunderstood something that—to borrow from Clem Greenberg—first appears ugly before ultimately proving profoundly original.

Unfortunately, there’s no danger that I’ve missed a paradigm shift at the Brooklyn Museum’s victory lap for Bravo TV’s Work of Art champ, Abdi Farah. (The venue—plus the hundred grand Farah pulled down in prize money—negates my no-hammering rule.) This is a Warholian quarter-hour on steroids: an artist who has become famous less for original work than for surviving capriciously judged elimination rounds among contestants who seemed chosen as much for personality quirks as for talent.

So why did the “World Famous Brooklyn Museum” (the moniker bestowed on the institution by the reality show’s creators) agree to host an exhibit for the last artist standing? Wall labels mention 19th-century juried competitions at the Louvre that were “extremely popular with the public,” and, indeed, the cramped gallery devoted to Farah’s paintings and sculptures welcomed a steady stream of spectators during my weekday visit. Upon entering, one woman spontaneously gushed to a guard, “Hey! This is the guy that won that thing on TV!”

Farah’s accomplished figurative chops played well on the small screen. Included in this exhibition is Baptism, a self-portrait from Episode 9 in which the competitors were sent to a park and told to execute a piece that utilized nature. He mixed charcoal and rich black dirt for a life-size drawing of himself lying flat on his back. With rare formal insight, he allowed the grit of his materials to fall and gather along the curled bottom of the large sheet of paper as he drew, a hazy horizon that set off the figure as a luminous, levitating presence. In a painting across the museum’s gallery, another horizontal form, this time inside a body bag, provides a conceptual contrast through deft brushwork that convincingly evokes the sagging weight of death.

Between these nicely wrought poles, however, are works such as Grey (Farewell Line), a painting that depicts figures in hoodies clutching luggage as if waiting for a bus. Striving for pathos, the illustrational image has none of the emotional heft of great narrative painting. This muddled aesthetic extends to a pair of large resin sculptures: young men splayed on the floor, adorned with actual shorts and athletic shoes. They were perhaps shot as they drove to the hoop, though their outsize heads and spindly legs make for purposeless, inert distortion. The garish colors in another group of paintings owe much to Photoshop’s manipulations and less to observed reality, falling into an enervated and charmless netherworld.

You can’t blame a 22-year-old for lunging at the brass ring and, God bless him, snagging it. You’ve got to wonder, however, about the museum directors who allowed TV sharpies to foist this thoroughly mediocre exercise upon their venerable institution.