At 23, U of M almost-grad Miles Mendenhall leapfrogs the starving-artist phase of his career in a new TV show.
Can aw-shucks naivete be a winning gambit on a reality television show? Will a wildly alliterative name help? How about high energy, raging talent and an engaging camera presence?
Miles Mendenhall of Minneapolis employs them all on "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist," a reality show debuting Wednesday on Bravo.
Introduced on camera to the show's ravishingly stylish producer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mendenhall puts on a puppy-dog grin as he shakes hands and asks, "And you are?"
Then he attacks the show's first challenge -- making a portrait of a competitor -- with manic energy and a single-minded purpose that hints he might end up winning the 10-episode competition that culminates with a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and a $100,000 cash prize. It's a heady experience for the 23-year-old not-quite-graduate of the University of Minnesota's art program and recent winner of a Jerome Foundation grant.
"People get the wrong impression when you get onto a reality TV show," Mendenhall said recently at Highpoint Center for Printmaking in south Minneapolis, where some of his new work is on view through June 26. "I really wasn't interested in the pseudo-celebrity thing that came along with it. I was interested in it as performance art -- where you just show up and they take care of packaging you. It was an experiment that I felt compelled to do, and I had to remove myself from the social and professional repercussions of what it might mean."
What the show will do for Mendenhall's career won't be clear until the winner is announced. If then. "Work of Art" eliminates one competitor at the end of each episode. Sworn to secrecy by the show's contract, Mendenhall just grins mischievously and says nothing about how far he got in the competition.
"I don't think it can hurt his career," said Carla McGrath, Highpoint's executive director. "I don't see any downside unless you kill or maim someone. At minimum, I imagine each of the contestants would find a gallery to handle their art, if they don't already have one, and the show will be a hook" to attract patrons and collectors.
Mendenhall is one of the show's youngest artists, along with Abdi Farah, also 23, from Baltimore. The 14 participants are a demographer's dream team of ethnically diverse men and women, ages 23 to 62, who hail from eight states and Vietnam. Some hold advanced degrees, teach art at the college level and have shown internationally. Others are recent grads with thin résumés. At least one is self-taught.
"The quality of these artists is very much what you'd see in juried shows around the country," said Charles Desmarais, deputy director for art at the Brooklyn Museum. His organization got involved as an experiment in reaching new audiences and promoting fresh talent. Museums used to do that with shows that were judged or "juried" by professionals and open to all applicants, but such populist events are rare now, aside from the Whitney Biennial and a few others. The reality show format restores democratic opportunity, Desmarais said.
The museum is not dumbing down for the show, he said. Brooklyn's curator of contemporary art, Eugenie Tsai, helped pick the winner, and the monthlong exhibition will be held in a small but "very credible" gallery that's previously housed Renaissance paintings and contemporary videos, among other art.
New York challenges
The entire series was shot last fall in Manhattan, where the artists assembled in a well-equipped warehouse-style studio and were assigned a series of creative tasks to be completed in a set period. They also shared a dormitory apartment complex and were apparently under camera scrutiny 24-7. The show's producers cooked up the creative challenges after consulting art-world professionals. Officials are cagey about what exactly the artists were asked to do.
"I think the challenges the artists were faced with were quite credible and similar to those they face in real life," said Simon de Pury, a Swiss-born auctioneer and gallery owner who divides his time between London and New York. He helped select the artists and served as "mentor" as they started each assignment. Participants were chosen from about 1,000 artists who early last year presented their portfolios for review in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and New York. About 60 made the first cut, De Pury said by phone from London. From that group, producers picked 14 finalists.
"What distinguishes these artists from most artists active anywhere in the world is that art is normally a very solitary pursuit, done alone in the studio or home," De Pury said. "These artists were very brave in basically being filmed through the whole creation, from procuring materials to producing the finished artwork."
Mendenhall, who claims to be just "one Spanish course" short of an undergraduate degree in art, says he auditioned almost by chance when he happened to be in Chicago with his portfolio. "I saw the line, figured out what it was for and just stood in," he said. He waited two hours with "a ton of people" before the interview and portfolio review that launched him.
Once selected, he plunged with gusto into the portrait assignment that was the first challenge. He was not content merely to paint or draw his assigned subject, fellow competitor Nao Bustamante, a fortysomething internationally known performance artist who teaches at an upstate New York college. Instead he photographed her stretched on the floor as if dead, then altered the image to suggest her flamboyant personality. From a preview of the first episode it appears that the project required him to assemble a darkroom overnight, and at one point left him despairing that he would finish on time. His jumpy, fast-paced activity is amplified by Bravo's staccato camera work.
"I was researching the history of highway bandits and death photography in Minnesota before I left" for New York, Mendenhall said in a rambling explanation. "In death portraiture these men are portrayed in a variety of ways. Morticians showed them serene and tranquil. Bounty hunters propped them up and they looked gruesome. ... I found that loss of control by the bandits beautiful because they were taking their lives into their own hands. That loss of control was very interesting to me."
Seemingly flummoxed by Mendenhall's frantic energy, his randomly assigned partner, Nao, turned out an abstract portrait of him that left the judges politely scratching their heads.
Before the first episode was even filmed, Mendenhall had won the Jerome grant and a Minnesota State Arts Board fellowship. His Twin Cities résumé includes solo appearances at the trendy Gallery at Fox Tax, and a group exhibit at the Weisman Art Museum, among others. He and an older sister grew up in Lakeville, where their parents are both music teachers, his father running a junior-high band program and his mother in an elementary school.
"We weren't poor, but it was a teacher's existence," Mendenhall said of his childhood. "I always had to find interesting ways to entertain myself, drawing and making forts. In school I figured out the system of worksheets and grading and just breezed through. When I hit art I realized that I couldn't do that, and it became a totally worthwhile passion."
After graduating from Lakeville High School in 2005, he went to the University of Minnesota, where he worked in the art department's wood shop and took courses in painting, printmaking, sculpture and other media. His work there caught the eye of Emma Berg, founder of the Gallery at Fox Tax in northeast Minneapolis, who offered him a show last September.
"Initially, he was doing these very large, almost vulgar portraits in pop colors -- bubble gum pink, sky blue, grass green -- that were based in cartoons," Berg said. "By the time we showed him at Fox Tax he was in a completely different realm, much more conceptual abstractions that were segments of photos blown up till they were just pixels. And he had gigantic concrete pieces he wanted to hang on the wall. I was so mad when the show came down because by then he was in Peru and I had to drag the concrete blocks across the floor myself. ... But it worked out, and I'm happy we did the show."
For the past nine months, the Jerome fellowship has paid for studio time at Highpoint Center for Printmaking, where Mendenhall has turned out a series of large black-and-white screen prints inspired by the intricate geometric patterns formed by pixels in computerized images. Two other Jerome winners, Katinka Galanos and Justin Terlecki, also worked there along with local teens and national artists. "Miles is amazing," said Galanos, who teaches at St. Cloud State University. "He's one of the most generous, kind-hearted, hard-working people I know, and a very thoughtful artist -- a real go-getter."
His youth and intensity were a "tremendous influence" on the teen artists, said Joanne Price, coordinator of the Jerome program. He has a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that would break out at times, but also proved to be an asset. "It's part of what makes his work good," Price said. "When you focus and just won't let go no matter what it takes, chances are you're going to get what you want and how you want it. A lot of people just don't have that persistence."
Asked if he could end up the victor on "Work of Art," gallery director Berg gave him a verbal thumbs-up. "His concepts and execution are great, and he's always full of ideas and definitely competitive," she said. "There's a lot of depth in his art, and he's so charming that I can see he would win people over."
Whether he won or got the boot, Mendenhall was "amused by the whole thing," he said. "If you're smart and observant, [a reality show] is one of the funniest things you can be involved with. You're really aware of yourself and the record being made of you and that people will judge you off that one moment in time. People are broken down into these typecast characters. It's brilliant; I can't even say how brilliant."
And were he to be the victor, Simon de Pury has a proposition. "I'd be delighted to auction work by the winner in the competition, either in New York or London," he said.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431