Going for Miles

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Minnesota Artist Miles Mendenhall is a strong candidate to be “the next great artist” in Bravo’s reality show “Work of Art.”

I have to admit – I am not a fan of reality television. To me such shows just radiate “we’re not willing to pay for writers.” But when I heard about this new show on Bravo called “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” in which a University of Minnesota student was a contestent, well, I was obligated to check it out.

Next confession: I actually kind of like it.

Evidently I’m not alone. As the weeks have progressed, more and more people have gathered to cheer Mendenhall on as he competes against other artists in weird, contrived competitions (for your next act, you’ll create a canvas from this trash heap!). He’s creative, has lots of energy, can work with practically any material, and is a little obsessive-compulsive, which makes him fuss more than most over the details.

Chair of the U of M Art Department Alexis Kuhr is one of Mendenhall’s professors, and considers him a friend. Because Mendenhall has worked campus jobs, many U of M staff think of him as not just a student, but a colleague. Kuhr notes that while Mendenhall is a visual artist, he’s also studied performance, and this show is allowing him to do both at the same time.

We knew he was approaching this show as a fun opportunity. For Miles, who’s really interested in how much of being an artist is a performance, it’s been a playground. He’s been able to explore character at the same time as he’s been making really interesting artwork. It fit his art-making practice, and what it means to be an artist in this culture. If he was taking this seriously I think it would be a problem – if he actually thought that he won this that he would actually be “the next great artist,” but he went into this thinking this is a game, and within this game I can explore this character.

Of course, at the same time we’d really like him to win – because we’ve gotten really into the game!

The U of M organized viewing parties of the show, which has ten episodes (the 9th airs tonight). It started as an event for U of M staff, but quickly grew and moved to Bedlam Theatre’s rooftop. Local artist Karen Haselmann has been providing post-show commentary using shadow puppets. For the final two shows, the parties are taking place at the outdoor sculpture courtyard at the Regis Center for Art, where guest artists will install light pieces that will play on the walls of the art building. Kuhr says it’s a way to take this odd televised event and bring it back into the local community.

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Karen Haselmann’s jetpack shadow puppetry

At this point I should mention that this show was of course filmed months ago, and Miles Mendenhall is back at school. By contract he can’t reveal if he won the competition, or any other crucial details. For that reason I’m not going to bother interviewing him until the show is over.

But I was curious to hear what the Chair of the U of M’s Art Department thinks about a reality TV show in which artists compete in timed trials for a wad of cash and a high profile solo exhibition.

Quoting shadow puppet commentator Karen Haselmann, Kuhr admits “we’re horrified, but we can’t look away.”

It’s really great entertainment. As a premise, every artist I’ve talked to has said either “this is problematic because now people are going to think this is how art is really made – quickly, with little time for thought” or “putting art in a competitive art is a problem.” But this is a reality tv show – a game – and if you approach it with that in mind, then you can have some fun with it.

Kuhr says she hopes the show does give people a backstage view of how artists create, and she says one moment in the show inspired a bunch of people to stand up and cheer for abstract art, something she’s never seen before.

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In one episode of “Work of Art,” Mendenhall created a “death mask” portrait of fellow contestant Nao.

So does Kuhr think Mendenhall will win? She says he hasn’t given her any indication of whether or not he won the competition, but those attending the viewing parties have noticed some trends.

There’s a device that goes on in the show. If anyone calls Miles a name in the show they are eliminated, and anyone Miles critiques in the show is eliminated. It’s gotten to be pretty funny.

Since Mendenhall returned to town from the shooting, Kuhr says he’s been looking for ways to turn his very surreal experience on the show into something more meaningful. To that end, the U of M has commissioned him to make a series of prints which will be sold to raise money for scholarships. And the day after the final episode (which airs August 11), the U of M’s Nash Gallery will hold an opening reception for an exhibition of student work curated by Mendenhall.