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Work of Art Exit Interview: Runner-up No. 2

For a while there, Work of Art viewers thought a Miles Mendenhall win was somewhat inevitable. But in the end, his conceptual screen prints didn’t dazzle our judges quite as much as Peregrine’s country-fair sideshow or Abdi’s figurative ruminations on race and class. We chatted with Miles about his love-him-or-hate-him persona and the many exciting projects he has in the works.

You had one of my all-time favorite lines on the show — something to the effect of, “Free beer, free art supplies, why not?” What sort of expectations did you have going into this experience?
I think a lot of people just took it way too seriously. For me, it was more of a really funny thing to be involved in. I had some bigger issues, I think, that I was more interested in that go along with involving yourself in a reality-TV show, and the kind of comical and interesting things that can happen to you socially. But yeah — they put you up in this really nice place in New York, and there is free beer and free food. In all honesty, it was a bit of a vacation. When you strip the kind of seriousness of it away, it’s a pretty funny game show.

Do you feel like you got anything out of it artistically?
Oh, definitely. I think one of the main things that I was maybe not happy with on the show was that they didn’t show how in-depth the critiques were. I always tried to get those critics talking about larger issues that weren’t really concerning my art or the art on the show. Just stuff that I wanted to pick their brains about. At my age, come on — I’m never going to meet Jerry Saltz. That’s just a far-fetched thing. So I tried to get as much out of him as I could in terms of what he was thinking about some issues I was interested in.

Like what?
I was really interested in persona and how influential a person’s perception of another person’s art is because of their persona. I was pretty set on making a gray area for myself — lovable, hate-able, all that jazz — just because it was something that I was really curious about, something that I think is one of those gray issues that hasn’t been resolved in the art world.

So throughout the show, when people were sort of accusing you of putting on an act or putting on a front … was that partially true? Was your participation itself a piece of performance art, so to speak?
The thing that I think I was doing was that I tried to give them as much as possible. And none of it was ever maliciously untrue or anything like that. But I really set out to have a gray area about myself because I think that’s more of the interesting thing. With the creation of a persona, you’re almost guaranteed a dual existence. You’re one person in the social perception of pop culture and all those things. And that was something I was really interested in, because it’s easy to separate yourself from people’s perception of that persona. I wanted to see if I could kind of handle it in a way, you know? In all honesty, the editing is a huge part of it. And people always ask me if I’m angry about it, and I’m like, the farther away it is from me the more interested I am in the whole experience.

Do you feel like they played up your OCD or your crush on Nicole?
Oh yeah — and completely misunderstood, all of that. Which I was pleasantly amused by. It’s not one of those things that I sit up and kind of tremble over. In Minneapolis, the show itself kind of works more as an installation piece or a performance thing than it does in the larger scope of pop culture. But yeah, the OCD thing was completely misunderstood. And with the crush on Nicole … come on, you’re working with this super-talented, beautiful girl in close quarters ... There was no way that I wasn’t going to develop some sort of crush on her. She’s super-talented and all those things, but yeah. It’s just funny. I’m actually pleasantly surprised at how much controversy kind of came around the character of me on the show.

Did anything happen with you and Nicole?
Come on — you know I’m not going to tell you that!

Yeah, yeah. I had to ask ... Moving on … What were your impressions of the New York art world? From what we saw on the show, this seemed like your first exposure to it.
Oh sure — I loved that game. I think it’s fascinating. I think that art is sometimes so shy about where it meets commerce. There’s definitely purity and people making pure things, but I think that inevitably, because money is involved, there’s this game to be played. And I think in a funny way, this whole show highlights that.

Could you see yourself being a part of the New York art world one day?
I think I’d participate in it from afar. I love Minneapolis. I think Minneapolis, for me, really works. It’s a beautiful community, and it’s small enough but still has a lot of networking and connections that are actually fruitful and official rather than kind of just superficial and more about who you know. But at the same time, I really have a great time in New York whenever I go there. I’ve only been there a couple times. I love skateboarding and they have a great skateboarding scene. I think there’s a great energy there that I love, but I don’t think I would ever really want to live there for a period of years. I might stop over for a couple months or something.

So what are you up to now? Have any opportunities come your way as a result of this?
I got a show in New York in a week — I don’t think I’m allowed to say where yet. And a solo show back here in April. I just finished curating a show here in Minneapolis to raise money for the BFA scholarship program at University of Minnesota. It went really well in terms of the community really coming out to support young artists, learning and everything. The show has gotten really good reviews. Then I’m going down to New Mexico to study large-scale carbon printing.

Have you embraced any of the critiques from the show in terms of what you’re doing now — this whole issue of relinquishing control and finding a way of working that isn’t quite so methodical?
I think the issue of control came up just because I’m a pretty calculated person, and when you’re working with time constraints it’s almost gotta be controlled. I never thought there was room for making a great piece of art on that show. But for me, the thing that’s come out of the show are my current projects in carbon printing. They are these large-scale areas of gray that have these kind of horns coming out of them that you can’t really focus on, but they kind of induce this daydream, hypnotic state in the viewer. I think that kind of parallels my experience on the show in how I really, really wanted to explore the gray areas of persona, and how people can be perceived in the larger context of pop culture and in the art world. And I think my art is kind of reflecting that right now.