‘The Exhibit’ Recap: The Reality TV Battle Royale to Find the Next Great Artist Launches With a Clash of Egos and a ‘Botticelli Banana’

In the first episode, contestants created work around the theme of gender.

Jennifer Warren painting her first commission, Baby Dreams (2023). Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode one. 
Jennifer Warren painting her first commission, Baby Dreams (2023). Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode one. 

Welcome to your weekly recap of The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great American Artist, a six-episode reality competition show airing on MTV and the Smithsonian Channel, set to crown its winner with a cash prize of $100,000 and a solo exhibition at the Hirshhorn.

It’s a gripping enough premise, but far from an “unprecedented” competition happening “for the first time,” per host Dometi Pongo’s opening: Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, in 2010, proceeded with the same conceit over two seasons. That was more than a decade ago though, which means, I guess, we’re due for the next next great artist.

The show’s first episode trots out the seven artists who will be competing for the titular honor. They are Jamaal Barber, Frank Buffalo Hyde, Baseera Khan, Misha Kahn, Clare Kambhu, Jillian Mayer, and Jennifer Warren, who, in between them, boast solo and group shows, residencies, publications, and awards.

In short, they’re no slouches. And more so, they represent a diverse array of creative practices, from painting and printmaking (Barber, Hyde, and Warren) to mixed media (Mayer and Khan) to sculpture (Kahn).

The Exhibit contestants (from left to right): Baseera Khan, Frank Buffalo Hyde, Clare Kambhu, Jamaal Barber, Jennifer Warren, Misha Kahn, and Jillian Mayer. Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode one.

After a welcome from series judge and Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu, the group is invited to roam the museum for the evening. With the space all to themselves, the contestants take in works by Laurie Anderson and Mark Bradford, and do requisite vlogs—while, gasp, splitting into distinct factions. 

In Kahn’s words, there are the ones working on “three-dimensional stuff” and there are “the painters… proper, reserved humans.” While he, Khan, and Mayer bond, Hyde and Warren are found quietly viewing Barbara Kruger’s Belief + Doubt (2012), alongside Kambhu who reflects how the artist taught her to “be critical.”

With that, the competition segment commences. In voiceovers, Khan promises to deliver “whoop-ass,” while Buffalo Hyde offers: “We’re all killers, but no one knows how we kill.”

The Exhibit host Dometi Pongo (left) with Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu, and guest judges Adam Pendleton and Kenny Schachter. Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode one.

But first, the rules. Each week, the participants will be assigned a commission after a theme—a “pressing issue,” in Chiu’s words—which they have two days to complete. A judging panel will then assess the results, before picking a winning commission based on criteria including originality, concept, and quality of execution. There will be no eliminations, though winning commissions does help one’s chances, and the ultimate winner will be selected based on their body of work across the series’s run rather than a single piece. 

The week’s theme: Gender, which Chiu introduces by highlighting how works by artists such as Kent Monkman and Loie Holliwell have sought to reimagine and subvert gender roles.

Frank Buffalo Hyde with judges Melissa Chiu and Adam Pendleton. Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode one.

As the contestants begin crafting their commissions in Hirshhorn’s artist studio, Chiu and guest judges, artists Adam Pendleton and Kenny Schachter (also an Artnet News scribe), make their rounds of the works in progress, in the style of The Great British Baking Show. They hear from Kahn, who is gaming out a “femme-presenting Botticelli banana” sculpture; Kambhu, who is planning to paint a series of pixelated letters, challenging how we “read” gender, with encaustics; and Warren, who is working on an oil capturing her personal experience of traditional gender norms.

Most of these commissions proceed as planned, save for Kahn’s efforts to inject resin into his silicone sculpture. We’re treated to some nail-biting tension out at the “Hazardous Materials Space” as he struggles with the process and recalibrates his approach to get the work “90 percent there.” Don’t worry, he assured us, “I’m still gonna win.”

Misha Kahn, Banana Seeds (2023). Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode one.

A crit session follows, where the judges tour and review the commissions. The panel deems Buffalo Hyde’s painting of a cardinal, which could be born with two genders, a good representation, though its background splatters let it down. They find Mayer’s sculpture, which diffuses male and female hormones, an “interesting juxtaposition” of materials. They laud Kambhu’s tactility and Khan’s use of contemporary techniques. Less points, though, for Barber’s “obvious” figuration of a female form; Kahn’s banana, while a “big statement” to Chiu, is judged “more novelty than subtle artwork” by Schachter.

The verdict? Chiu announces that Mayer’s and Kambhu’s pieces “stood out” for the judges, but it’s Warren’s commission, Baby Dreams, that wins for its personal narrative, rich composition, and sense of perspective. “We felt this was an inventive way of talking about gender,” said Chiu.

Jillian Mayer, Perfect Flowers (2023). Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode one.

Champagne is rolled out as Warren calls the acknowledgement “a validation” for her, a self-taught artist. But lest we forget that this is reality TV, dissenting views are aired. Mayer believes Warren’s work was only picked “because of the cat” (there’s a cat in the painting), while Kahn, more pointedly, reckons either he or Kambhu should have won. 

For her part, Warren is warming to the competition. “There are egos; I felt it was a stab,” she said of the criticism from her peers. “I did win that challenge and what are you trying to say?” Oof, drama is a-brew!

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