"Work of Art: Abdi Farah"

"Work of Art: Abdi Farah"

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Much has been made of the Brooklyn Museum's decision to offer an exhibition in its galleries as the prize for Bravo's "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist," which is disturbing on a plenitude of levels. For one thing, marketing hyperbole aside, the notion that "the next great artist" will be discovered on a reality show is a killing joke. That the troubled museum threw what remains of its institutional clout behind this farcical notion — which the show's various judges, to their credit, did not know about, since the title was revealed after filming — serves to discredit its claim to what should be a museum's primary function, to frame and present art that is truly "great," or at the very least productive.

 

All of this, of course, is no knock against Abdi Farah, the winner of the Bravo show and the recipient of the prize exhibition, which is displayed in a cupboard-sized gallery next to the museum's gift store. What one finds in his show, however, is not the work of a "great" artist, but that of an earnest 22-year-old painter and sculptor whose adolescent gawkiness is still as apparent in his strangely proportioned art as it is in his thin, youthful frame.

The body, in fact, is the anchoring theme of the show, and Farah's investigation of the corporeal form and its mortality seems to point in a direction of depth. On two low pedestals on the floor a pair of black resin casts of bodies — modeled from the artist himself, though with his features obscured and his head enlarged — is displayed, both with raw textured surfaces and clothed in athletic shorts and basketball shoes. On the walls, there are several small self-portraits and one large one rendered in the cool, electric colors of medical imaging technology, one of them carrying the loaded title "Tuskegee (Warm Body)," after the diabolical medical studies that the U.S. government conducted on black sharecroppers from 1932 to 1972. A long charcoal, dirt, and black pigment self-portrait, "Baptism," dominates a far wall; the winning piece of one episode of the reality show, it demonstrates a sure hand and elegant draftsmanship, as well as a sensitive use of materials. It's the best piece in the show.

Many other works, however, simply underscore how unformed Farah is as an artist. Paintings of body bags, with the images cropped in a jaunty, disorienting manner, are purely surface, ignoring the paintiness of paint to display a banal, rote signifier uninterestingly. Maurizio Cattelan has already gone there. Elsewhere Farah ventures onto territory that has been more convincingly trod in the signature works of other artists, too; hooded figures painted from the back recall a less assured Karel Funk, and the resin sculptures, positioned in flailing mid-leap and clad in basketball clothes, seem weaker approaches to what Hank Willis Thomas already did with his deadly Air Jordan parodies. (Some of Thomas's work is also hanging on the walls upstairs at the museum, showing a young artist with real potential for greatness.) Overall, Farah's exhibition showcases the work of a still-evolving talent with his mind on big themes that haven't quite found their expression in his art, and with an artistic identity indistinct enough to suggest that "next" will involve a long wait.