First off, let's just get the eye rolling out of the way.
Yes, Bravo's latest reality TV competition has a visual-arts theme. And yes, that means that the same contrived formula that you love to hate (to really love) in shows such as "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" will be applied to the contemporary art world. A pool of contestants, calibrated to ensure an appropriately dramatic ratio of sex appeal to neuroses, will suffer through a series of high-pressure wacky challenges. Immunities will be won; eliminations will be made. A mountain of cash and a career-appropriate prize -- a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum -- will be awarded.
This should only appall you if you somehow believe that visual artists are above making money, petty competition or publicity stunts. The real reason to watch "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist," which debuts on Bravo on Wednesday, is Minneapolis artist Miles Mendenhall, the 23-year-old winner of a Jerome printmaking residency whose work is currently up at the Highpoint Center for Printmaking.
An odd little controversy has accompanied Mendenhall's Bravo debut ever since a local gossip website suggested in April that the artist may have used the show to pull off an elaborate piece of performance art. According to a post on L'Etoile magazine's LOL/OMG blog, Mendenhall had worked closely with a former professor to concoct a ready-made personality for "Work of Art" -- that of an obsessive-compulsive disorder-stricken artist fighting through a host of quirks and obsessions.
The idea apparently was not for Mendenhall to act, necessarily; the artist says he does actually suffer from OCD. The goal, supposedly, was to create an ersatz version of himself, a not-so-altered ego for the altered reality of reality TV. Think "Second Life," only more excruciatingly theoretical.
The details may have been fuzzy, but the postmodern potential was tantalizing. For a brief moment, it seemed like reality TV could be brilliant.
But then the post was removed. According to L'Etoile editor Kate Iverson, it was taken down within 24 hours, at Mendenhall's request. Later, he called Vita.mn to contest a similar report.
When we finally caught up with him, the contractual straitjacket had been belted on pretty tightly. In a phone interview monitored by a Bravo publicist, Mendenhall dismissed the rumors, claiming that a snatch of a private conversation got picked up by a distorting chain of gossip.
"I'm definitely not stupid enough to bring heat on myself by faking a mental illness," he said. "But I definitely think there's something really interesting to be examined here."
He repeatedly mentioned being fascinated by "the stand-ins" and "filters" of reality television, "the kind of quotes you're put in or the kind of cloud that hangs around you." He even went so far as to cite Roland Barthes' "Camera Lucida," a classic text on the relationship between photographic portraits and true personality, as his favorite book.
And while he didn't condone the published rumors, he admitted to being fascinated by them, too. "That creates another filter [on reality]," he said. "And I think it's going to be a continued experience of that, once the show starts airing and I start reacting to others' reactions to it."
The guy wasn't tipping his hand. Of course, at this point, we weren't talking to the real Mendenhall, anyway, or even his Bravo alter ego. He was just a voice on a telephone, sharing airwaves with a publicist and a journalist -- another doppelgänger, created for another awkward media moment.
WORK OF ART: THE NEXT GREAT ARTIST
- What: Minneapolis artist Miles Mendenhall competes for $100,000 and a show at the Brooklyn Museum in a reality TV show.
- When: Premieres 10 p.m. Wed. on Bravo.
- Premiere party: 7 p.m. Wed., Soo Visual Arts Center, 2638 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.
JEROME EMERGING PRINTMAKERS
- What: New screen prints and lithographs by Mendenhall, Katinka Galanos and Justin Terlecki.
- When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon- 4 p.m. Sat. Ends June 16.
- Where: Highpoint Center for Printmaking
- More event details