MTV’s The Exhibit Is All That’s Wrong With the Art World

SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers ahead include but are not limited to the winners of the sixth commission and the show’s grand prize.

MTV’s The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist is officially over, with the final episode of the reality show airing tonight, Friday, April 7. Despite the fact that the finale was pretty much two episodes worth of material crammed into 46 minutes, it still fell flat with its overly contrived editing and the judgement panel’s selection bias that unintentionally leaned into the very issues the show was trying to address.

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The sixth commission had the artists make a self-portrait, something that’s expected of any art-oriented reality TV competition. Baseera Khan smushed their face into a scanner and made a five-by-five-foot collage of the enlarged printed scans. “I give a lot of myself through my art practice because my story is something that people need to hear,” Khan narrated over footage of them with their face against the scanner glass for the final piece that was titled after their solo presentation at the Brooklyn Museum, I Am an Archive (2021).

“I represent a large group of people who are unseen in the US — I feel like I’m carrying the weight of a lot of people, so my success is so many other peoples’ success,” they added.

I had to side-eye that statement … Yes, I agree that Khan’s story is something that needs to be heard — I would say that’s accurate for most artists from historically disenfranchised groups. But I don’t really appreciate Khan’s self-appointment as the spokesperson for the marginalized, diasporic bodies of America, especially through the “mascot-ization” of their face and body in their artwork throughout the show. If they want to make work about themselves, that’s amazing and valid and I wholeheartedly endorse that. But it’s not necessary to say that their success is other peoples’ success.

Frank Buffalo Hyde and a production staff member installing his self-portrait commission in the gallery for the critique session

It was Frank Buffalo Hyde who finally got his flowers for the last commission through a black self-portrait acknowledging the multitude of missed opportunities as a symptom of the routine marginalization of Indigenous people. What I really enjoy about Hyde’s presence on the show and the exploration of his practice is his role not as the face of Indigenous survivance, but rather as a messenger and participant who wants everyone to recognize the larger “Indigenous Renaissance” within the scope of contemporary art. And one artist who surprised me this week was Clare Kambhu, who painted a diptych of the birthmark on her cheek and a chemical burn scar on her leg from a medical procedure, celebrating these “blemishes” and her positive relationship with her body rather than characterizing them as evidence of trauma.

Following that, however, was the revelation that only three of the competing artists were invited to create a freestyle commission for the 2022 Hirshhorn Gala for consideration of the $100,000 grand prize and exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum. But not before Kenny Schachter made an attempt at whistling in celebration of the competition’s end in sight, only to fail spectacularly and muster up the sound of a goiter-stricken parakeet.

Misha Kahn explaining his freestyle commission concept to Melissa Chiu, Keith Rivers, and Kenny Schachter

Unsurprisingly, the three artists selected were Clare Kambhu, Baseera Khan, and Misha Kahn (who somehow never won any of the competitions despite his incredible technical prowess across every material possible). Of course, Hyde’s win was forgotten in light of the trio’s selection for the final round, quite literally demonstrating the points he touched on in his self-portrait and the rest of his work on the show. Yikes.

Kahn, Khan, and Kambhu (… 🥴) had two months to create their freestyle commissions to present at the Hirshhorn Gala honoring … Kaws, whom Melissa Chiu described as “a wonderful artist.” Tells you everything you need to know about the show, honestly. Kambhu stuck to her conceptual examination of institutions, but wowed me with a supersized painting featuring meticulously rendered textural richness. Kahn, who simply refuses to be pinned down or put into a box, actually unpacks the pain and liberation that accompany said feelings in his virtual reality and traditional painting and sculpture duo. Khan 3D-printed their body in fragments, emulating the pose of the Buddhist female deity Naro Dakini, whose sculptural rendition is in the Smithsonian Institute’s collection.

Victorious in the end, securing the $100,000 prize and the solo exhibition, was Baseera Khan. “I cannot wait to open my exhibit at the Hirshhorn,” said Khan, who had a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum just about a year ago, thus bookending this contrived competition.

At the end of the day, Khan, Kahn, and Kambhu appeared to be the only three real competitors in the show, whereas Frank Buffalo Hyde, Jennifer Warren, Jamaal Barber, and Jillian Mayer felt typecast as solely side characters. Even the way the judges spoke about Jennifer Warren, of whom I myself have been critical throughout, during the critique session of the self-portrait commission felt extremely patronizing as they acknowledged she was a self-taught artist and harped on about how her confidence grew throughout the season. It just felt like Warren and the others never really stood a chance, and looking back, I had a subconscious hunch that it would either be Kambhu or Khan walking away with the prize.


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