Miles Mendenhall shakes up Bravo's 'Work Of Art'

Nick Vlcek

WHEN THE BRAVO network debuted a new TV reality show for art geeks this summer, called Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, viewers were very quickly captivated by one contestant in particular: a lanky, 23-year-old Minnesota artist named Miles Mendenhall.

The show was modeled after so many others on TV—American Idol, Survivor, Project Runway—and featured a group of attractive, personality-heavy contestants who competed in elaborate challenges, vied for immunity, and one by one were voted off the show by a panel of judges till only one was left to claim the top prize—in this case, a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum and a cool $100,000 in cash.

Mendenhall, who created this week's City Pages cover, was one of the youngest artists on the show, a clearly talented and good-looking kid with perpetual bed-head and a neurotic charm, but it was his quirky and erratic behavior that drew the most attention. In the course of the show's 10 episodes, Mendenhall frequently discussed his obsessive-compulsive disorder; slammed his fellow competitors' work during critiques; incorporated his own semen into one of his artworks; considered using mustard gas, made from ammonia and bleach, in another; and would often suddenly lie down and take a nap during inappropriate moments.

But for all his apparent antics, he was also one of the show's most formidable artists. He won the first two art challenges, and had the judges fawning over his work. By the second show, Mendenhall was the dominant topic on the show's bulletin board postings from fans. The audience seemed polarized into two camps: those who saw Mendenhall as a dreamy, talented, sensitive artist, and the ones who thought he was a manipulative asshole. The Los Angeles Times blog "Culture Monster" referred to him as an "emo-hipster backstabber." Another site, "Coed Magazine," called him one of the "five greatest reality show contestants of all time."

His fellow artists on the show were no less torn. Mendenhall was flirty with the women, but several male competitors were less enamored. One labeled him an "art pussy." A couple others called him a "douchebag," and he was even accused of exaggerating his OCD to gain sympathy.

The ante was upped when the Twin Cities blog LOL/OMG posted that Mendenhall had reportedly met with a U of M art professor to strategize about the show and craft a persona of a tortured artist that would set him apart and appeal to the judges.

That prospect raised a whole new and vastly more complex set of questions: Was this Miles guy for real, or was it all an act? Was this a masterful and subversive example of performance art, in which the show itself was Mendenhall's "work of art"? Was he just a misunderstood artist, or was this all a pure goof—a giant put-on?

One thing was clear, however: The kid from Minnesota was rapidly becoming the star of the show.

MENDENHALL WAS INITIALLY encouraged to try out for Work of Art by one of his profes-sors at the University of Minnesota, who thought the style of his work and his fluency in several artistic genres would be a good fit.

"It just seemed like something that I could get a lot out of and take a risk on," Mendenhall says. "I didn't really know if I could stomach something like that, but in all honesty, it was in the end too interesting to say no to."

Mendenhall certainly had the artistic chops—he was the youngest artist ever to receive a Minnesota State Arts Board grant—and after a series of portfolio reviews and interviews, he won a spot on the show.

He took a fairly cerebral approach to the competition, less concerned with advancing his career, he says, than with the grand social and media experiment: how he would react to the challenge, how his persona would be shaped by the show's editing, how he would be painted by the blog culture, and how he would deal with the "half-fame," as he calls it, of reality TV.

"It's totally out of my control—that's the interesting part about it," he says. "There's that thing that's kind of created for you. It's like a really minimalistic form of performance art in a way: You just show up and your performance is pulled out for you in a really dramatic or entertaining way. So I thought it would be really interesting to see what they would do to me."

Mendenhall downplays the stories about strategizing with the art professor. "I think it might have gotten turned around. We were honestly just kind of talking about theory and everything—the perception-oriented concerns of the show—and not so much like, 'Hey, how am I going to win this thing?"

Even so, he wasn't above playing the game, though he is still coy on the subject of how much of his act was deliberate.

"For me, in terms of how much was conscious and how much was just goofing around, I don't know—maybe like 50-50? I talk really lightly about this because I like keeping it ambiguous.

"I think in the long run it doesn't really matter," he says. "I think people were trying to take something seriously that I didn't view as too serious."

In fact, he enjoyed TV's distorted view of his motives. "The farther away from reality that the editing was, the happier I was. Just because if it was totally representative of who I was and what happened, it just wouldn't be as fun."

One of the show's judges, gallery owner Bill Power, says, "I think he definitely tried to game the system, but I think with the work that he made it can stand apart from whatever high jinks might have ensued behind the scenes."

Many fans were exasperated by what they saw as judges' falling for Mendenhall's tortured-artist routine, but in fact the experts were genuinely impressed with Mendenhall's artwork from the beginning.

"I would say Miles is the most consistent artist we have on the show," said judge and host China Chow at the end of the season. "I don't think he ever gave us any bad work. And I think the others might have been a little jealous at times."

AS THE SEASON progressed, Miles lost a bit of his early mojo, and didn't win another challenge till the eighth episode. But he was never in serious danger of being booted off the show, and as he sailed into the final episode he was widely considered the best bet to take it all.

In the final competition, the last three contestants were sent back to their hometowns with the assignment to return three months later with enough finished work to mount a full gallery show.

And it was here that Mendenhall made his only stumble. His final pieces were eclectic, but the bulk of them were a series of highly polished, black-and-white, geometrically patterned prints that recalled op art of the 1960s. Though the work was accomplished, it was deemed safe and unadventurous, and it didn't wow the judges. Judge Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn called Mendenhall's oeuvre "disappointing," and he was the first of the three finalists to get booted off the show.

Though Mendenhall didn't win, the exposure has radically altered his career path and opened up new possibilities. One judge, Powers, was so impressed with Mendenhall's work that he gave him his own show at the gallery he co-owns on the Lower East Side.

"I think he's a very talented kid and that he is quite competent in any number of mediums," Powers says, "but at this point he needs to be exposed to as much contemporary art as he can be. I advised him to move to New York as soon as humanly possible."

Earlier this year, Mendenhall was part of a group show at the Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis, and the U of M asked him to curate a show. He says he will have another exhibit at Franklin ArtWorks in April.

But his experience on the show, he says, has also changed him in other ways. Artistically, "it moved me to a better place," he says, and his work now has become "aggressively simpler." And personally, he says, "it's made me more self-aware, and it's made me appreciate person-to-person interactions much more. It's surprising how something that goofy can make you grow seriously, actually."

Surviving the fishbowl of reality TV "is a pretty harrowing experience," he says, "and I think it's something that, at my age, I really thought, 'Man, if I can make it I'll be more calm, I'll be more cool.' And I am, you know?"

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