‘The Exhibit’ Recap: Emotions Run Hot as Challengers Take on a Timely Art Commission, But the Spirit of Competition Is Tepid

This week, a pandemic-themed commission produces the 'feels.'

Misha Kahn collaging his work in virtual reality. Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode three.
Misha Kahn collaging his work in virtual reality. Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode three.

Here, at the halfway point of The Exhibit, MTV and the Hirshhorn’s six-episode effort to ferret out the next great American artist, two different contestants have won two commissions, putting them in good standing to take the top prize.

But without eliminations, it’s hard to tell who’s even pulling ahead in this race as we come to the end of the third episode of the reality show, which first aired earlier this year. However worthwhile The Exhibit‘s emphasis on spotlighting the creative process may be, it has come at the expense of any sense of competition (the biggest reason for its existence), which remains lukewarm at best, tepid at worst.

So, here’s the latest bid to raise the onscreen stakes.

For their third commission, the competitors are making work exploring how they “survived or thrived” during the 2020 global pandemic. There’s the personal and collective trauma to tap, which should “articulate this moment in time,” per the series judge, Hirshhorn museum director Melissa Chiu. The studio then duly turned somber for the 10 hours the artists are allotted to complete their assignment.

It’s a “heavy” topic, noted Baseera Khan; “It’s raining in my eyes,” said Frank Buffalo Hyde.

Baseera Khan with series judge Melissa Chiu and host Dometi Pongo. Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode three.

Jillian Mayer, who took to cultivating mushrooms during quarantine, once again reached into her mixed media bag to create what she called a “sculptural chia pet but with mushrooms.” Last week’s winner, Khan, gamed out a quilt, patterned with an image of the Mother’s Tongue plant, in reference to the comfort they found in their own blanket when they contracted coronavirus. 

The majority of the artists, though, have opted for painting as medium. There’s Clare Kambhu’s series of abstract canvases that point to her first adventures in abstraction during the pandemic; Buffalo Hyde’s poignant painting of his nation’s Haudenosaunee flag (recalling Jasper Johns’s Flag) underscores how he leaned on his tradition and clan to survive the pandemic; and Jennifer Warren’s third go at a self-portrait is centered on her mental state over lockdown. 

Detail of Alive (2023) by Frank Buffalo Hyde. Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode three.

Even Misha Kahn, Mr. Mixed Media, was putting paint on paper. “Do you want to teach me how to paint?” he asked Kambhu. “I’ve never really oil-painted but the colors seem cuter.” True to form, Kahn decided to collage these small painted canvases digitally using virtual reality to recreate a celebratory dinner he had with his family during Covid.

The heavy subject took a toll on Jamaal Barber. While creating a clutch of acrylic wash paintings of his children, in a tribute to fathers and sons, the printmaker broke down from the unresolved grief of losing his mentor, sculptor George Nock, to the virus.

“The emotion is affecting my mental bandwidth,” he said, before having to take a moment in a curtained room. There, he’s joined by host Dometi Pongo, who told Barber to “feel your feels.”

Detail of Memories (2023) by Jamaal Barber. Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode three.

Detail of Memories (2023) by Jamaal Barber. Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode three.

Crit came next in the form of two guest judges who accompanied Chiu, artist and Artnet News’s columnist Kenny Schachter and cultural sociologist Sarah Thornton. Kambhu’s “not compelling” work was swiftly written off, while Warren’s self-portrait (called “a cloying claustrophobic perspective” by Thornton) and Khan’s quilt (“a relatable and powerful metaphor,” said Chiu) scored some points.

Schachter called Kahn’s digital collage “his most successful work,” and lauded Buffalo Hyde’s pastel flag for centering “a personal history with heritage.”

Detail of Untitled (2023) by Jillian Mayer. Photo: Screenshot from The Exhibit, episode three.

And then Thornton delivered the episode’s most TV-worthy critique: While discussing Mayer’s splotchy mushroom sculpture, the judge rated the artist “an interesting conceptualist who doesn’t like making things that much.”

It’s a pithy and cutting piece of commentary, and the stuff that reality competitions are supposed to be made of.

Because The Exhibit has been really obvious about telegraphing these things, it’s no shock that Barber landed this week’s commission for his stark black-and-white washes that convey a “strong sense of tragedy,” said Thornton. “His presentation brought me to tears,” added Schachter.

It hardly heated up the proceedings though. But you know what might? The likes of Sarah Thornton.

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