MTV’s The Exhibit Needs a Cutthroat Judge

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MTV’s The Exhibit Needs a Cutthroat Judge

We’re halfway through the Hirshhorn and MTV’s The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist, and while the latest episode, airing tonight at 10pm EST, was more tolerable, the formula is tired and bogged down even further by the syrupy sweet competitors and the benign critique sessions. Unlike what we see in America’s Next Top Model, it seems like everyone came here to make friends which, while cute, doesn’t really make for good television. (Warning: Some spoilers below!)

In episode three, Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu and show host Dometi Pongo tasked the artists with developing a “commission” (what they call the artwork made for each competition … lol) responding to the coronavirus pandemic, specifically “how you survive, or maybe even thrive, in this moment in time.” But not before Chiu pressed multiple hot buttons on the keyboard of relevant virtue-signalling by speaking about an exhibition she co-curated during the early pandemic and shoehorning in a Shirin Neshat reference.

A detail shot from the background of Jennifer Warren’s large-scale painting about her mental health during quarantine

In this round, the artists were afforded the 10 hour studio time over two days again but only a few delivered. As expected, self-taught painter Jennifer Warren found an enormous canvas to use for another half-baked painting that could have been great with an additional week of work time, and Jillian Mayer fashioned another amorphous, muddily-colored blob sculpture. While Mayer’s competition works are pretty uniform in style, she does play with scale and function in the background, and she used mushrooms as the anchor for the biodegradation and connectivity concepts in this commission.

Finally strutting the line between concept and technique, Jamaal Barber thrived in this episode, but I have to admit that the scene of his emotional breakdown over the loss of his mentor, George Nock, felt really intrusive and a bit off-color. I’m sure it was edited by the producers with the intention of peeling back the layers of masculinity and embracing processing emotions, but I felt that it inappropriately made a spectacle of his grief in a way that doesn’t line up with the show’s self-established moral high ground. It was endearing to see the rest of the competitors hold Barber up and empathize with him, though.

This week’s guest judges were art writer and sociologist Sarah Thornton, who sits at the midpoint between Paula Abdul in American Idol and Deborah Czeresko from Blown Away on the Crit-O-Meter, and returning judge Kenny Shachter who is there for reasons I have not yet identified. I actually found myself agreeing with the judging panel’s assessments more in this episode compared to the last two.

Clare Kambhu’s abstract painting series installed for the critique session

I thought Clare Kambhu’s series of abstract paintings was really beautiful and it was exciting to see more of her as an artist rather than an educator, but I think she had a unique perspective existing in the school system during the pandemic and it was a missed opportunity to explore the impacts of social distancing and disrupted learning on her students.

As the show’s jack of all trades, Misha Kahn won some points for his Yves Tanguy x SOPHIE lovechild virtual reality painting that married the solitude of his digital practice with the chaos of a Minnesota family dinner, leaving me confused as to why he didn’t use the VR headset for the social media challenge in the first place. Baseera Khan’s incomplete and uncomfortable-looking quilt only gathered a smattering of milquetoast criticism, and the judges quickly moved past Frank Buffalo Hyde’s abstracted Haudenosaunee flag painting to my disappointment.

The overly chipper, extra-supportive cast dynamics dissolve any real elements of competition from the show, and Chiu’s bland camera presence and signature Hillary Clinton smile-and-stare combo doesn’t help stimulate any tension either (besides overwhelming discomfort from me). It just feels like there’s no real stakes here despite an enormous prize and sought-after exhibition opportunity. I think maybe a more aggressive guest judge could help light the fire the show so desperately needs … Anyone have Deborah Czeresko‘s contact information?

Baseera Khan reacting to Jamaal Barber’s outburst while preparing for their large quiltmaking commission

For a six-episode show, I was hoping that the third episode would stir the pot a little bit more but all we got was an uncomfortable scene of Barber processing grief by throwing a stool aside. The show did hint at a collaboration challenge which I hope comes to fruition in the next episode or two, but for now, I remain underwhelmed and vying for more screen time and flowers for Frank Buffalo Hyde.

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