MTV and the Hirshhorn’s Artist Competition TV Series Take Up Profound Injustices

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

As we pass the half-way point of the competition, the seven artists are tasked with creating a work of art that addresses a profound injustice for the fourth episode of The Exhibit, a new six-episode docuseries created by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and MTV.

Though the artists seem groggy, with only ten hours to complete the work, they also appear to have acclimated more to both their settings and to each other. “I understand that we’re in a competition, but I have a lot of friends here now,” remarks Jillian Mayer.

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Three people look at art in a gallery.

Guest judges Adam Pendleton and Kenny Schachter return alongside Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu to assess the artists on their originality, quality of execution, and concept of work. Chiu reminds the group, “You’re visual storytellers and the story is always the key ingredient to make any artwork great.”

This week’s inspiration from the Hirshhorn collection includes Mark Bradford’s site-specific installation Pickett’s Charge (2017), depicting the final Gettysburg battle that signaled the beginning of the end of the Civil War, and Ai Weiwei’s installation Trace (2014), portraying 176 activists from thousands of Lego bricks.

Some early standouts include Frank Buffalo Hyde’s landscape painting of Mount Rushmore, wherein the mountain is restored to its former glory as a sacred Indigenous site; Baseera Khan’s soft sculpture showing the negative space between three rings calling into question, “Who gets a seat at the table?”; and Jennifer Warren’s depiction of the Hearse driver comic strip (related to her winning painting in the first episode), which details the removal of Black men from their families.

Warren’s painting was inspired by her father’s experience growing up in the American South during the start of desegregation.

“I started school as the first Black in an all-white school. I had a confrontation with a teacher who spit on me. Three months after that I left and they wouldn’t let me go back to her class,” Warren’s father says, his voicing breaking with emotion. “And she was the only English teacher in the school and I had to stay there, go to her room, in order to graduate. So I wind up going back to the all-Black school.”

Jennifer adds, “I wasn’t taught about this in school and that’s part of the injustice.”

Drawing on a similar idea, Jamaal Barber’s abstract wood panel collage focuses on the late 23-year-old Guinean student Amadou Diallo, who was shot at by cops 41 times and killed on his way home in 1999.

In another emotionally weighty challenge, however, one can almost always count on Misha Kahn for levity. Mayhem strikes again as expanding foam spews from a pink plastic dolphin pool toy. Kahn, who chose to focus on telling the story of the nearly-extinct Vaquita porpoise in a mixed-media installation, again faced difficulties with material experimentation.

“I never tried pouring the expanding foam into a pool toy,” says Kahn. “I forgot how hot it got and I thought there was a good chance that it would just fully disintegrate.” Luckily, he was able to use the extra foam to make parts like fins to complete his project.

As the judges walked around to offer some initial feedback, some of the artists responded while others chose to stay the course. Barber, for example, opted to be less literal in his abstract experimentation—a move well beyond the artist’s comfort zone as a printmaker.

“Now, given the times we live in, you might assume that it would all be about social justice,” reflects Chiu on the artists’ work. “But, in fact, all of the artists had their own opinions and interests in their own lives and the ways that justice impacted on them.”

As time winds down, Barber begins to second guess his foray into abstraction while Clare Kambhu starts to consider a contingency plan. Kambhu, who returns to still-life painting after last week’s departure into abstraction, considers schools as both a place of oppression and meaningful change in a depiction of student chairs arranged to indicate that a discussion had just occurred.

“I see my work as an artist in tandem with my work as a teacher in a school system,” explains Kambhu who believes that, while art can have a broader impact in the public sphere, teaching can have a greater affect on an individual. It is revealed that prior to teaching middle and high school, she taught the incarcerated.

Also feeling the time crunch is Khan, who did not finish their project last week, but this week has come to find value in the looming deadline, saying, “limitations makes for magic.”

Some additional inspiration from the Hirshhorn—because what is this if not an opportunity to present more art from the museum’s collection?—comes from the Guerrilla Girls who highlight sexism and racism in their works Pop Quiz (1990) and Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988).

Despite a chaotic installation, everyone managed to finish. In this week’s crit, the judges felt that Mayer, whose installation highlighted the ways in which media and social platforms profit from outrage, had haphazardly pieced together disparate elements, while Barber’s piece didn’t tell the story he intended because his piece was too abstracted. Khan’s work, meanwhile, left them wishing the artist had done more.

The judges were impressed that Buffalo Hyde’s painting challenged our nation’s understanding of Mount Rushmore from a native perspective and, similarly, that Warren’s painting further expanded on an earlier story that they felt needs to be told.

Ultimately, it came down to Kahn—clad in a Vaquita Milk shirt much like a brand representative—and Kambhu. The judges applauded the Herculean speed and quality of Kahn’s work, as well as of his use of absurdity to engage with an issue. Kambhu, however, was able to offer a commentary on public education and the importance of it from her own perspective as a public teacher—and, for that, she received her first win.

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