Contestants on MTV and the Hirshhorn’s Artist Competition TV Series Look Backward to Move into the Future

(Spoiler alert: this article contains information and plot points from the fifth episode of The Exhibit, a docuseries created by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and MTV.)

For the fifth episode of The Exhibit, the seven artists were back at it again, this time reimagining one of their past works to represent their hopes for the future. The show may now be winding down, with just one more episode to go, but tensions still ran high as the artists raced to complete the assignment in ten hours.

This week’s guest judges, alongside Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu, included acclaimed sculptor and installation art Abigail DeVille, whose 2020 piece Light of Freedom currently resides in the museum’s sculpture garden, and Keith Rivers, an art collector, former NFL player, and member of the institution’s board of trustees. They judged the works on the basis of originality, quality of execution, and concept of work.

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Three people look at art in a gallery.

Nam June Paik, the video artist who predicted a paperless society in 1968 and created TV glasses in 1971, long before Google Glass existed, served as the inspiration for this week’s assignment.

Jennifer Warren created an oil painting of a screaming face that was based on her work Cool Facade, wherein she expressed her pure terror in the face of rapidly changing technology. Misha Kahn’s virtual reality painting inside of a 3-D sculpted frame was based on his childhood claymation video Chair on an Adventure.

For this millennial viewer, however, the most exciting work was the one Jillian Mayer made based on her viral video I am Your Grandma, which inspired her to create a cave installation about leaving all things digital behind. Mayer, who became an overnight sensation due to the video’s success in 2011, has since moved her life off the grid. She maintains a house in Florida, but also has constructed a shelter in the back of a large truck.

“I really am attracted to the idea of preparing for the unpreparable: a world offline, a world without electricity,” she says in the episode. Her artwork, a call for others to leave society alongside her, is “kind of dystopic in a natural way.”

Frank Buffalo Hyde also considered new technology, updating his painting of a Native dancer, We Don’t Pray Like They Do, to now include a virtual reality (VR) headset. “Art, for me, has always been a weapon” Buffalo Hyde asserts. “It’s a way to get people’s attention. It’s a way to change things.”

Baseera Khan constructed a mixed media sculpture showing human skin squished between two pieces of clear Plexiglas. This piece is drawn from an earlier installation in which Khan constructed air ducts, which the artist called the arteries of a building, from clear Plexiglas. For this challenge, however, Khan is referencing their own innards as they deal with the pain of a tennis ball-sized growth on their left ovary.

The studio feels chaotic as the artists race to finish. Kahn asks his painting cohort for help finishing his piece and Warren and Jamaal Barber oblige.

For his project, Barber chose to revisit a screen print from the 1940s that he had abstracted with quilt-like patterns. He decides to focus on two central figures from the original piece and add a feeling of joy through color.

As the clock ticks, insecurities rise to the surface. Both Kahn and Mayer express concerns about not having yet won a challenge, while Khan becomes frustrated with having to continually clean the Plexiglas in their piece.

Kenny Schachter joins judges Rivers, DeVille, and Chiu for this week’s crit. In the judges’ opinion, Warren’s painting was freer than her previous canvases, but didn’t relate directly enough to the prompt—a comment that was also given to Khan for their sculpture, though the judges felt it was brave and powerful of them to tell their story. The judges thought Buffalo Hyde also missed the mark, with an original painting that may actually have been more complex than the new work.

Last week’s winner, Clare Kambhu, who adapted a painting of a car mirror with exit ramp in background, continued thinking about time with a series of works on paper. The judges felt she delivered a poetic and conceptually abstract response with a series of paintings installed on the walls and floor that challenged viewers to physically change their perspective.

“It’s a plea—it’s a hope that future generations will tread lightly on the world and stay grounded,” Kambhu said.

Barber, toggling between the figurative and the abstract, also received praise for his Madonna and Child–like work, which the judges believe speaks to belonging to one another and offers a feeling of optimism. They did, however, encourage him to use wood carving or print making in his work.

In the end, it came down to Kahn’s piece and Mayer’s cave installation. Despite concerns about finishing, Kahn presented one of his strongest works thus far; however, it was Mayer’s installation, which was among her most assured efforts, that the judges felt best capitalized on the current moment. For this, Mayer received her first win.

“I’ve been really messy and chaotic, but I think there’s something valuable about honing in on the mess and still be able to push an idea through,” says Mayer.

With next week’s finale fast approaching, the question remains: who will be the next great artist?

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