'Work of Art' season finale review: 'Project Artwork' comes to an end

Work of Art concluded its second season Wednesday night with an hour that typified what made this season so frustrating. The very quality that should make this series a TV natural — it’s visual art, being made right in front of your eyes — is also what ended up hemming in the series.

The three remaining artists — Young, Sara, and Kymia — each went off to their studios for a couple of months since we saw them last week. In Work of Art‘s version of the Project Runway home visit perfected by Tim Gunn, Simon de Pury unbuttoned his white shirt to show some decolettage as he visited each artist, met their families and/or loved ones, and passed judgment on the art each had been creating in isolation. No surprise here: Kymia started bawling after Simon said he’d only been impressed by a single piece and that she had a long way to go.

Kymia was always the most emotional of the contestants, and the yappiest, and the most self-pitying. (Remember how hurt she was when Lola and Sarah didn’t talk to her in the studio?) But she also had the fastidiousness of a perfectionist, which helped in her finely detailed drawings in a show dedicated to her dead father.

By contrast, Young, who was the season’s golden boy, winning many competitions and praised for even his weakest conceptual work, remained a cool customer who’d planned a big installation piece involving “traveling platforms” that had something to do with, in his phrase, “the President’s house in South Korea.” But during his visit, de Pury professed himself not impressed with this project, and asked what the shrine was over in another corner. It was part of Young’s art homage to his father, much of which was photographed and made while the latter was dying of cancer. De Pury encouraged Young to use this material in his work, no matter that one had nothing to do with the other. Young immediately, rather cynically altered his work to fit the emotional template de Pury was encouraging.

Sara’s project sprang from a piece of performance art — she’d donned a papier mache bird-head and solicited written “confessions” from people on New York streets, and then made installations and drawings that took their themes from the various messages she received.

There was no doubt in my mind that Sara’s was the most interesting work. As was true throughout the season, her spidery line drawings were striking, and her installations had an airy flow. The weakest work by far was Young’s — those photos of his father attached to his father’s shirts and hung from a clothesline? how mawkish! — but given how fond the judges were of him (“You get stronger and more articulate every week,” said Saltz), I figured he had a good chance of taking the big prizes.

After an art gallery showing that featured past contestants and the inevitable interlude with the Sucklord — he’d made a toy figure of judge Jerry Saltz that he’s now hawking on his website — the discussion between the judges was, once again, frustrating for a viewer, too short and edited too coyly. The only remarks that both stood out and annoyed me were Bill Powers’ put-downs of Sara’s work as being disjointed. Humph — you mean unlike Young and his clothesline of shirts plus “traveling platforms”?

In the end, Sara was given the boot first, a ridiculous decision. And then, as though to simply add a surprise ending after all these weeks of praise for Young, the winner proved to be Kymia. Yes, her sentimental death piece was better executed than Young’s sentimental death piece, but if previous weeks’ work had counted for anything, logic said Young would have won.

I really love the concept of Work of Art, but this was a flat season — a real danger for a series in only its second season. The show didn’t seem to build much media buzz, and I think the contestants were poorly cast. But the final few weeks were very poor indeed, with host/judge China Chow signaling what we should be feeling via tears, and the judges conferences kept short and snippy. I never had any sense of how these judges felt about each other’s words and opinions, other than a few shots of eyes rolled or heads shaken. There should have been more back-and-forth, more time spent relating these young artists’ work to various periods of art history and the influence of established artists. Work of Art could be so much more than it was. I hope it gets another chance to create a better third season.

Twitter: @kentucker

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