Ken Tucker
August 12, 2010 at 04:06 AM EDT

There was so much self-conscious irony, art-world-insider chattiness, and reality-TV posturing during this energetic first season of Work of Art: The Next Great Artist that it was almost inevitable that the show would end by striking one of its rarest poses: sincerity.

The hour began with the Project Runway-style gimmick that’s always better than a gimmick: visits to the finalists’ homes. That meant Kansas City, MO, for Peregrine, who lives with her jazz artist husband in a large living/working space that would be the envy of any creative person. Placed in her context, it was now easy to see why Peregrine often came across as an art-addled sprite: She’s created her own little self-contained art world, and had filled it with sculptures and paintings in various media of horses, children, and – in her most striking and what she described as “creepy” image — unborn twin fawns.

Then it was on to Dover, PA, where Abdi seemed to live in his mom’s basement, furiously busy making art below while, above, his utterly charming mother kept an immaculate suburban home. It was tempting to make a connection between Abdi’s impeccable technique (realistic drawing, portraiture, and sculpture) and the middle-class orderliness in which he was raised.

On to Minneapolis, MN, and Miles, where he revealed to the visiting Simon de Pury a key childhood influence – the Teletubbies – and the fact that this 23 year-old didn’t become seriously interested in art until he was in high school. Again, this seemed to explain something in Miles’ work: All these weeks in which we and the judges noted that he’s as absorbed in the process as much as in the finished work might have to do with his relatively recent, ongoing mastery of various art-forms.

Once everyone was reassembled, so to speak, at the Brooklyn Museum for the installation and showing of their work, I realized pretty quickly that the flat statement I made last week – “It’s Miles’ show to lose” – was foolish. Miles took one of those great concepts of his (this time, taking pictures of people who frequented a White Castle hamburger joint and fixating on a man who died days after Miles photographed him) and then over-worked the concept into ugly abstraction.

By contrast, Abdi stuck to what he does best, only on a bigger scale. The crucial element of his show – two large sculptures of men in athletic poses that, when shown as figures lying on the floor, carried the weight of any number of interpretations: men of action; figures in death sprawls; crucified victims.

Peregrine offered up a truly dazzling array of candy-colored work. I thought the fawn painting was ultimately not creepy but eerie and beautiful, as were the various wax forms, especially the busts of children. Yes, the cotton-candy machine was too cutesy, and the drawings of people throwing up – in Simon de Pury’s phrase, “What’s with theeese young girls vomeeting?” – a one-note notion repeated too many times. But overall, looking at Peregrine’s effusive art, I agreed with museum guest and executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker: “Wow.”

The final “crit,” with guest judge David LaChappelle, was like many of these segments – you got the feeling so much more interesting stuff was discussed and argued over than was edited into the hour.

The winner was Abdi, and I think Peregrine should have won. Here’s why: Abdi certainly made a big impression with those two floor-bound sculptures. But the rest of his pieces weren’t as strong, from the inclusion of his sketchbook (which Bill Powers correctly nailed as a trite “art school” gesture) to the photo-realist painting of the body-bag that impressed the judges but looked merely lumpy to me. In fact, I wasn’t even sure whether the body-bag was a photo or a painting, but that has more to do with a problem Work of Art must address if it comes back for a second season – too often, art works weren’t filmed in ways that conveyed the experience of looking at them in a gallery or museum. Next time: different angles, more close-ups and long-shots, please.

Peregrine seems to have taken second-place for being too imaginative, too overflowing with her gifts. I mean, if judge Jerry Saltz called her fawn piece “perfect” – what higher praise is there? The other judges seemed to agree with him. But the warning de Pury offered Peregrine back at her home, that she had “too much” to show, seems like a forgivable sin, in the presence of such a variety of ideas and execution.

Overall in its freshman season, I really enjoyed Work of Art. I have a nagging feeling that the critics and/or the producers pushed Abdi over the finish-line as winner because his work was the most conventionally figurative, and therefore liable to appeal to the broadest number of viewers. But that’s not to deny his talent.

As a reality show, I think Work of Art was well-cast. Miles may have dialed back his devious sabotage mind-games for the finale, but he made for a fine character. But I’m shocked the show couldn’t work in a museum-moment with the series’ designated villains. Jaclyn, working the museum space in full Jessica Rabbit mode, must have uttered something quote-worthy, no? And are we to believe that bitter Erik was too mellow to pass some final harsh judgment on Miles?

This may be the internal paradox that dooms Work of Art: The very qualities that make for entertaining reality-TV – excessiveness, stupid obviousness, gracelessness under pressure – work against the creation of good art, unless you’re Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons or Julian Schnabel. And unlike Top Chef, in which you can imagine biting into a delicious morsel, or Project Runway, in which you can imagine your favorite dream-woman wearing a new creation, the end-product of this competition leaves you, at best, stroking your chin and saying, “Hmmm… really nicely done.” And I’m surprised to be writing that, given that I’d rather go look at art than eat in a fancy restaurant or attend a fashion show, but I think it’s probably true of most people in a weekly TV audience.

So, I end with two questions: What did you think of the choice of winner? And would you watch a second season of Work of Art?

Follow: @kentucker

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