Work of schlock? Reality TV artist raises questions — about the Brooklyn Museum

Work of schlock? Reality TV artist raises questions — about the Brooklyn Museum

An exhibit in the Brooklyn Museum showcasing the winner of a reality TV show is now open to the public — and contrary to many fears, the walls of the borough’s most-prestigious institution have not crumbled, though they have weakened.

“Work of Art: Abdi Farah,” while inconsistent over all, isn’t all that bad considering the artist’s rapid rise into the public eye. Given how quickly Farah will likely vanish from the public attention granted him by the Bravo TV series, he at least deserves a moment for that same public to consider his work on its own merits — before turning to the larger superficial issues raised by the existence of this show in the first place.

The most striking and provocative piece in the exhibit is “Libation,” which features two sculptures of figures wearing gym shorts and Nike high-tops splayed out on the floor. The bodies conjure memories of people shot for their Air Jordans and the fetishization of brands in urban America.

But in a larger sense, “Libation” — especially given the setting — can be interpreted as a commentary on the many issues of commercialization surrounding the “Work of Art” series.

Unfortunately, the two sculptures are the strongest indication of Farah’s potential as an artist, while the rest of the material doesn’t yield much more than a shrug of the shoulders.

Taken as a whole, the exhibit evokes a visit to the morgue; there are so many supine figures and body bags that a museum goer might not think she’s checking out an exhibit related to “Work of Art,” but rather an artistic interpretation of “The Wire” or “Dexter.”

All 11 pieces tackle urban life — something not at all out of place in the Brooklyn Museum — but some fail in fully communicating a message. “Tuskegee” — a painting of two bodies radiating red — is connected only in title to the mid-century racist syphilis research done in the name of science.

But as interesting it as to see Farah’s development as an artist during what must have been an extraordinarily intense (and micromanaged) series of months while filming the TV show, what the exhibit means for the Brooklyn Museum is just as compelling a topic.

In an introduction by Charles Desmarais, the museum’s deputy director of art, the institution openly wrestles with the decision to participate in “Work of Art,” and attempts to justify it.

“ ‘Work of Art’ is a direct descendent of the juried-exhibition tradition [of 19th-century France],” Desmarais writes.

Perhaps, but if reality TV is a descendant, it is a grotesque and disfigured one — more an inbred relative than the inheritor of centuries of artistic criticism.

Desmarais conveys the reservations the Brooklyn Museum likely felt when considering this endeavor, describing it as an “experiment in serving the museum’s audience in new ways.”

“Reality television … offers a dynamic new way for viewers to encounter a work of art,” he says.

It remains to be seen how many people will actually show up to physically encounter Farah’s small exhibit — it is quite possible that people prefer making superficial judgments from their couch rather than engaging with an amateur artist having his first taste of celebrity.

But even if visitors do flock to the Brooklyn Museum, many will likely be left with a sour taste in their mouths.

Farah is not primarily to blame for the feeling of emptiness that accompanies reality TV’s successful invasion of the Brooklyn Museum. Countless artists have teetered on the edge of commercialism — heck, the Andy Warhol exhibit is right down the hall, in the same space where the Takashi Murakami show was last year.

But Farah lacks the key ingredient for those two giants of commercial art: irony.

In fact, the arrival of “Work of Art” is deadly serious; it raises questions about where the Brooklyn Museum is headed now that it has decided to embrace reality television — a form of entertainment almost completely devoid of artistry.

A docent checks out the “Next Great Artist” show.
Community Newspaper Group / Stephen Brown

“Work of Art: Abdi Farah” at the Brooklyn Museum [200 Eastern Pkwy. at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, (718) 638-5000], now through Oct. 17. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.