MTV and the Hirshhorn’s Artist Competition TV Series Kicks Off –

(Spoiler alert: this article contains information and plot points from the first episode of The Exhibit.)

The Exhibit, a new six-episode docuseries created by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and MTV officially kicking off tonight, will see seven American artists compete for a presentation at the institution and a $100,000 cash prize. But on tonight’s episode, before they even made any art, the contestants got to spend a night at the Hirshhorn, à la E.L. Konigsburg’s 1967 YA novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, to gather inspiration for their upcoming challenge.

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Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu welcomes artists Clare Kambhu, Jamaal Barber, Jennifer Warren,
Baseera Khan, Misha Kahn and Frank Buffalo Hyde to the museum’s collection storage during the filming of

After operating hours, the group is shown wandering around the Hirshhorn’s galleries and immersed themselves in installations such as Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge (2017), Laurie Anderson’s The Weather (2021), and Barbara Kruger’s Belief + Doubt (2012). You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking this was all a commercial for the Hirshhorn’s collection.

But this is technically a reality show, however, and pretty soon, a sense of rivalry begins to creep in. “What bothers me is some artists that are new on the scene, suddenly they’re in every art news magazine,” remarks artist Frank Buffalo Hyde, one of the contestants. “It’s super annoying.”

This remark is followed by another from Misha Kahn, who sets the scene for what’s to come. “Baseera [Khan] and Jillian [Mayer] are both troublemakers,” Kahn says, referring to two of the other contestants. “We’re the ones that do three-dimensional stuff. Immediately you sense a similar thing. And then the painters, who all seem so lovely, are maybe more proper reserved humans.”

The next day, the artists receive their first assignment: an exploration of gender. With ten hours to complete the task, they are judged on originality, quality of execution, and concept of work. Two notable examples from the Hirshhorn’s collection—Kent Monkman’s Honour Dance (2020) and Loie Hollowell’s Boob Wheel (2019)—serve as inspiration.

Some of the artists propose compelling ideas. Immediate standouts are Hyde’s depiction of a cardinal, which can display male and female traits; Kahn’s prodding of male virility with a sexy, seeded resin banana; and Mayer’s hormone-emitting sculpture, which breaks gender down to the chemical level.

Working with encaustics, Clare Kambhu modernizes an ancient medium by offering up a pixelated depiction of the first three letters of some of her student’s first names such as “Ale” and “Dyl”, perhaps the start of names like Alex and Dylan. While working, she asks, “How little do we need to know about a person before we start making assumptions about them fitting into this binary?”

As guest judges are announced intermittently throughout the show, Artnet News columnist Kenny Schachter was then introduced to the artists.

Art doesn’t always come together as expected, however, and Kahn’s work appears to fall apart before it even begins. As he spins the resin coating to form his banana sculpture, it collapses. Seeking to salvage the piece, Kahn made more resin and recoated the work. Not long after all this happens, artist Adam Pendleton is brought out as another guest judge.

As the artists begin unveiling their finished products, Kambhu faces some difficulty installing her encaustic panels. Though Kahn gives her a hand, the panels continue to fall to the floor. Luckily, as the clock hits the final minute, Kambhu finishes installing her piece.

Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu, Schachter, and Pendleton offer a critique of each work—or, to use art-school terminology, a crit. In their opinion, Hyde ultimately overworked the canvas, while Jamaal Barber’s mashing of body parts in a collage-like drawing was too literal. Khan’s multimedia fabric collage also proved too much for the judges, who felt it took on “this kitchen sink mentality, where the artists think, ‘If I just dump everything that I can get my hands on it will make for a better piece.’ It’s not necessarily the case.”

Ultimately, for the judges, it comes down to two pieces: Kambhu’s encaustics and—a surprise frontrunner—self-taught painter Jennifer Warren’s self-portrait, which incorporated small details like informative publications and cleaning supplies throughout that reflected her experiences as a young Black girl.

Warren clinched this week’s win, but it’s clear by the end that the rivalries are just beginning. “They don’t like losing to someone who doesn’t have the type of credibility that they do,” says Warren. Looking ahead, we might see a battle royale between the more popular artists, like Khan and Mayer, and the more under-recognized ones, like Kambhu and Warren.

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