Shock to the System is Inspiration on a Thread: Which Artist Can Endure BRAVO’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist? Episode 4

In last week’s episode, artists had to create a “shocking” work of art. Even Art World hardhitter Andres Serrano showed up as a guest judge. Before starting the competition, he gave the artist contestants a private tour of his work, including the infamous Piss Christ, a photograph of a small plastic crucifix floating in a glass of the artist’s urine.

The artists readied themselves for the challenge, knowing that two people would go home. Creating pieces for Work of Art is like running a marathon: If you give your all in the first 10 miles, you’ll burn out fast. But if you save your strength and prove that you can endure, perhaps you won’t collapse on the sidelines.

For this challenge, I found Miles Mendenhall, Peregrine Honig and Abdi Farrah’s pieces to be the most successful. They are all shocking in a subtle, beautiful way. And, perhaps more importantly, these three artists have been able to physically endure the challenge set out by the BRAVO producers.

"First and Last" by Miles Mendenhal (Courtesy NBC Universal)

The 23-year-old Miles Mendenhall, for example, for example, has an out-of-control case of OCD that, at the beginning of the show, was portrayed as a disadvantage. But in fact, the very thing that hinders Miles in the real world actually helps him on Work of Art because he proves that he can withstand extreme physical states, like exhaustion and insomnia. One of the best means of torture is sleep-deprivation. Miles holds out. His piece, First and Last, embodies a subtle shock value, one that has stayed on my mind since last week’s episode. Miles recalls his first erection and ejaculation, which he had while watching the Disney movie, The Little Mermaid. So he starts drawing a Mickey Mouse head and fills it in with various genitalia. Then he goes to the bathroom and whacks off onto the piece, letting his semen drip down the sheet of paper. He completes “the last” part of “First and Last,” creating a successful, simple piece.

Herpes for Chanel by Peregrine Honig (courtesy Peregrine Honig)

For the shock challenge, Peregrine Honig found inspiration from one of her past series, entitled Pretty Babies (I wrote about it for Time Out Chicago magazine in 2007). A critique on the fashion industry, Peregrine playfully couples skinny designer models with disgusting STDs: Syphilis for Prada and Herpes for Chanel. She even borrows China Chow’s fluffy collar for one of them. In doing so, she points out the ugliness behind pristine beauty of the fashion industry. Peregrine’s work is shocking because it shows viewers something they’d quite frankly like to ignore. She glides easily into the next round.

"I.E.D." (Improvised Explosive Device) by Abdi Farrah, courtesy NBC Universal

Abdi Farah’s piece was a crapshoot, but in the final moments the judges waved him on to the next round. Three small, angry black heads with wicks coming out of the tops of their heads are placed on the ground, like grenades ready to go off at any moment. Abdi explains that this piece represents the treatment of black men in American society—they are conditioned to act like grenades ready to explode. Abdi’s critique works mostly because he focuses on race, a topic that the show’s contestants have stayed away from. If he weren’t a black man giving this critique, however, these could easily be goth-inspired hipster candles. But instead, Abdi’s risk pays off.

Tonight Episode 5 airs, and I’m not expecting any brilliant pieces to come out of it. But I am interested to see what the BRAVO producers come up with for the next challenge.

The marathon is just half over. The artists who remain have crossed over, and only the fittest will finish—those with enough marathon training.