MTV and the Hirshhorn’s Artist Competition TV Series Reflect on the ‘Traumatizing’ Aftermath of Covid-19

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

“This commission is traumatizing,” artist (and contestant) Frank Buffalo Hyde says at the top of the third episode of The Exhibit, a new six-episode docuseries created by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and MTV.

Running high on emotion and low on time, this week’s challenge centered on how the artists survived (and, potentially, thrived) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Allotted ten hours over the course of two days to complete the task, the seven competing artists have the chance to (re)evaluate how we live and how art has been essential to both understanding and escaping this time period. Contestants are judged on originality, quality of execution, and concept of work.

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Three people look at art in a gallery.

This week, Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu offers up a project of her own as inspiration: “Hirshhorn Artist Diaries”, an online exhibition co-curated with Theaster Gates. The project included such artists as Shirin Neshat, who offered quiet interiors from Upstate New York, and Alfredo Jaar, who showed mass burials in New York.

Among the competition, some early standouts included Jillian Mayer’s biodegradable mushroom–growing sculpture, described as a “sculptural chia pet”, stemming from the time she spent in her backyard growing mushrooms; Baseera Khan’s quilted blanket with a mother’s tongue plant design, which serves as a symbol of comfort and healing, based on her experience of being incapacitated for two months with COVID-19; and Jennifer Warren’s self-portrait, wherein she hysterically laughs and cries, with objects such as an easel and pills in background for stability, depicting her ongoing struggle with mental health.

The mood in the studio was more somber and introspective, as the group felt the emotional gravitas of the challenge.

Though all the contributions were personal, one artist in particular struggled with processing the emotional weight of the pandemic. Jamaal Barber, who made ink wash drawings of himself and his children, was processing the loss of his good friend and mentor George Nock, a sculptor and former NFL player, to COVID-19.

“The emotion is affecting my mental bandwidth,” Barber explained. “I can’t separate the experience from the loss.”

He continued as he tried to work, “Over the pandemic, my artwork changed a lot in terms of how I was constantly confronting these outside forces.”

After having a full-blown emotional meltdown in which he hurls a chair into the air before collapsing to the floor in tears, Barber cries to his wife on the phone.

After pulling himself together, Barber concludes, “Art is kind of the way that I talk about things that I can’t talk about. It’s a release. I’m glad that we had the challenge and that I could go into it and use it as my pathway to deal with these kinds of emotions.”

We also get a better idea of Buffalo Hyde’s backstory, too, as the artist writes out his fears on the base of his painting of a Haudenosaunee flag of the Iroquois Confederacy of Six Nations.

“I survived the pandemic by leaning on my tradition, my family, my friends, my clan, my nation,” he says in a reflection on how his family has taken a primary role in his life.

In a larger consideration for the world he explains how this time served as a “collective trauma that we as a planet haven’t dealt with coming through the pandemic.” Adding, “A lot that happened because of the pandemic should have happened years before.”

Amid all the emotions, Chiu acknowledges the range of feelings the pandemic illicits, from grief and loss to a collective moment of pause. As for the art-making, she says, “I’m looking for how the artists are able to articulate this moment in time.”

At this point in the show, guest judge Sarah Thornton, a writer and sociologist, is introduced. Throughout, she offers a critical psychological approach to the overall methodology of each piece. Kenny Schachter, who was previously in episode one, served as the second guest judge.

As time winds down in the competition, we see Khan and Clare Kambhu (who makes a series of abstract paintings this round) facing serious self-doubt about finishing their respective pieces. While Kambhu manages to finish despite the time constraints, Khan admittedly doesn’t fully complete the assignment.

In the weekly crit, however, the judges decided that, despite completing the work, Kambhu didn’t conceptually get close enough to the prompt. Though they felt Khan’s work was strong and felt finished, they wished she had presented her blanket as a performance piece rather than an installation. Warren’s painting was well received with her strong use of diagonals “creat[ing] a very unstable composition” reflective of her mental health struggles, as well as Buffalo Hyde’s ability to “think about [the work’s] relationship to timelessness, space, and life and death in a very fundamental way.” Perhaps the harshest criticism was given to Mayer, who was accused of being more of a conceptualist than an artist.

Ultimately, according to the judges, it came down to Barber’s drawings and Misha Kahn’s abstract mixed media collage of his family dinners during the pandemic.

Despite being dubbed one of Kahn’s strongest works to date in the competition, it was Barber’s ability to convey a sense of loss and love in his works that earned him a win—one that had even Schachter opening up about the loss of one of his own children in the episode.

“It reminds me of an elegy,” reflects the guest judge. “Art imbues my life with meaning and if it wasn’t for art and the rest of my family, I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”

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