The local arts scene is abuzz over Bravo’s new reality-TV series, Work of Art/The Next Great Artist , because one of our own—23-year-old Miles Mendenhall—is among the 14 contestants vying for the grand prize of $100,000 and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The Soo Visual Arts Center held a special screening party, and folks at the Highpoint Center for Printmaking—where some of Mendenhall’s work as a Jerome Fellow is currently on display—must have been ecstatic, since the national spotlight is not something that shines in their direction very often, if ever.
The show’s first episode aired Wednesday night, and, as luck would have it, Mendenhall immediately emerged as one of the show’s main characters. The dramatic highpoint (if I may use that term) of the first episode came when the light bulb in his screening table busted and he stormed out of the studio saying, “I’m screwed. That’s it for me!” But in the one-to-one camera interviews, Miles comes off as bright and articulate (not an embarrassment to the state, in other words), a charming kid who, artistically speaking, knows what he’s doing, more or less.
Locally, there was a brief flurry of gossip over Mendenhall’s inclusion in the show (in a blog posting at L’Etoile —since removed—and a subsequent article in Vita.mn) suggesting that Mendenhall not only knew what he was doing artistically when he tried out for the show, but had also figured out a way to “subvert” the competition by presenting himself to the selection committee as an artist who suffers from OCD. However, Mendenhall apparently does have a mild form of OCD (show me a decent artist who doesn’t), so the most he could be accused of is exaggerating his neuroses for the camera, which could only be considered a manipulative trick if you actually believe there is anything “real” about reality TV, or if you think artists should maintain their “integrity” at all times, even when they are competing for money and fame in a business that tends to reward integrity with a job washing dishes at Bar La Grassa.
Work of Art/The Next Great Artist follows the tried-and-true formula of putting contestants through a variety of challenges and, at the end of each episode, sending one of them home. The cast of main characters is familiar as well. Playing the part of the smug host is China Chow, a model/actress whose artistic credentials appear to be limited to her appearance on billboards for Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, and for being chosen as one of Maxim magazine’s “Hot 100 Women of 2001” (She was #54.)
Playing the part of the condescending art expert is Simon de Pury, president and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Co. Pury is a legitimate player in the contemporary art market, and he has the French accent to prove it. “My approach to art is purely physical,” he explains, “I normally know within the first split second if it’s a great work or not.” (A handy skill for the time constraints of television.) And though the contestants themselves are a racially diverse mix of men and women with conspicuously arty names like Abdi, Peregrine, and Trong, the show bravely elected to reflect the harsh, real-world reality of the contemporary art world: All the judges are white.
The contestants’ first challenge was to do a self-portrait. Our hometown hero Miles decided to present himself as a half-eaten sandwich, a conceptual leap that gave him the opportunity to discuss how one of the ways in which his OCD manifests itself is in the need to arrange the food on his plate in a certain way. (Which, as everyone knows, is just the sort of thing reality-TV screeners look for when they’re casting these shows.)
But where Miles the Minnesotan pulled away from the pack in terms of his profile on the show was during the second challenge, in which contestants were paired up and tasked with creating a portrait of each other. Each pair got half an hour to get to know each other, then it was off to the races to create a portraits that somehow communicated the true “essence” of one another.
The woman Miles was paired with, Nao Bustamante, seemed a bit perplexed, because she complained that Miles wouldn’t talk to her—instead, he spent most of the get-to-know-you time unpacking his print-making equipment. Consequently, Bustamante’s portrait of Miles’ essence ended up being a bunch of dots that, she said, represented Miles’ constant movement, as if he were careening around the room like a four-year-old with ADD. (The judges were not impressed.)
In portraying Bustamante, Miles chose to do a “death portrait” of her, explaining that in the late 1800s it was popular for photographers to take portraits of the recently deceased. Unfortunately, when the aforementioned bulb in his screening setup blows, Miles is the first artist to crack under the pressure of art-making. “My OCD started to act up,” he confesses. “I plan everything to a ‘T’ about what I’m going to do, so when a wrench gets thrown into it, I just get really worked up. I’m screwed, that’s it for me.”
Still, many of Miles’ competitors were impressed by his energy and zeal. “I have no idea what Miles is up to, but I like it,” said one. “It’s loud, and he’s got special tools, masks, and goggles.” Cut to Miles holding a giant hose and spraying a curtain of yellow goo on a sheet of Plexiglas.
For a while, it looked as if Miles might be in trouble. Come judgment time, he was not included in the first group of artists chosen to survive another week. But reality-TV shows need protagonists, heroes, conflict, and tension, just like any other show, and our man Miles provided all of it in the first episode. In a surprise switcheroo, the judges not only let Miles survive another week, they ended up choosing him as the winner of the first week’s competition, granting him full immunity in next week’s challenge. (Pury called Miles' work "sophisticated" and "impressive.")
So, whatever scheme mild-mannered Miles Mendenhall cooked up to compete on this show, it appears to be working. Next week, he can do whatever he wants and it won’t matter—and that’s just the sort of freedom every artist yearns for. Will fame and fortune be next?
There are only 13 episodes left to find out.
Work of Art/The Next Great Artist airs on Bravo, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.