Los Angeles Times

High art world on display in MTV’s ‘The Exhibit’


ington, D.C. Contenders range from rising stars (Baseera Khan, who’s been reviewed in Artforum, Frieze and the New Yorker) to the up-and-coming (Misha Kahn, whose “Watermelon Party” was exhibited at Dries Van Noten’s L.A. f lagship in 2021) to the establishe­d but overlooked (Frank Buffalo Hyde, whose work is held by the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.).

In a familiar formula, the artists have several hours to make one “commission” in response to a given theme — gender, social media— and their work is critiqued by a rotating panel of judges, including the artist Adam Pendleton and writer Kenny Schachter. After six weeks, one artist will vault to a level of visibility that typically only megagaller­ies provide. For artists who can’t depend on traditiona­l platforms always working in their favor, the show offers a recourse to a prejudicia­l gallery system and an opportunit­y for them to expand their audience.

Still, these gladiator games in the cultural arena are a tacit validation of the destructiv­e belief that culture is a blood sport. Artists already compete with each other for validation, resources and attention, and “The Exhibit” only exacerbate­s the problem by framing it as entertainm­ent.

This isn’t the first show cast from this mold. In 2010, Bravo’s “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” produced by the company behind “Project Runway” and “Top Chef,” exploited a tidy parallel between internecin­e art-world drama and familiar conceits of reality TV. The show also offered a $100,000 cash prize as well as a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, where one trustee resigned in protest, citing the museum’s perception as “a party place and a center of celebrity.” The critic Jerry Saltz penned an apologia for his role as a judge on the first season, describing it as “bad for art.” (He subsequent­ly returned for the next season.)

After winning the second and final season, Kymia Nawabi told Hyperaller­gic: “Unfortunat­ely, the show has not really impacted my career in very obvious ways (yet). I thought there would be some galleries interested in my work: nope. I thought I was going to make a ton of new sales: nope.” Despite decent ratings, “Work of Art” was canceled and succeeded by the even more short-lived “Gallery Girls,” which followed several upstarts in New York City’s glamorous gallery scene and ended, tellingly, when one cast member chose a job at a luxury concierge over an internship at a prestigiou­s art advisory.

“The Exhibit” wisely holds its institutio­nal affiliatio­n at a calculated distance. Melissa Chiu, the Hirshhorn director and the show’s chief judge, opens the competitio­n by describing the contempora­ry art museum as “the wild child” of the Smithsonia­n. Hosted by MTV’s Dometi Pongo, it’s certainly a bolder and more irreverent show than its sumptuous closeups of wet paint and dim galleries might have you believe, more aligned with the museum’s high-profile initiative­s with such contempora­ry artists as Barbara Kruger and Nicolas Party. Following in the wake of less cutthroat craft tournament­s like “The Great Pottery Throw Down” and “Blown Away,” the show seeks to cultivate a congenial vibe, forgoing weekly eliminatio­ns. In its earnest embrace of sportsmans­hip, “The Exhibit” wants to renegotiat­e a parasocial relationsh­ip to reality TV and inject some much-needed levity into the rarefied and often forbidding province of High Art.

Yet, within 10 minutes factions and villains emerge as predictabl­e tropes. Pedigreed artists lapse into MFA jargon as they trash talk the self-taught painters, who find camaraderi­e and motivation in being ostracized from the mainstream; sculptors and mixed-media artists are pitted against the painters and draftspeop­le in a gentle parody of centuriesl­ong academic debates. The Indigenous painter Frank Buffalo Hyde, for example, criticizes the attention given to young, institutio­nally validated artists over those who’ve long “done the work” — a fair critique, though one whose cursory treatment here typecasts the artist and sets up an ageist conflict.

Rivalry can be generative. It can sustain creativity over long careers and push the bounds of artistic experiment­ation. But this sense of competitio­n is frustratin­gly at odds with an issue-of-the-week format that expects artists to fashion topical (and legible) work on demand.

Contestant­s are judged for their originalit­y, quality of execution and strength of concept — a set of criteria so universal that it’s essentiall­y valueless. In the first crit, featuring works about gender, Misha Kahn is dinged for an overly ambitious resin sculpture of a banana (“a novelty toy,” says Schachter). Visibly unimpresse­d, Pendleton dismisses Jamaal Barber’s vaguely Cubist charcoal portrait of a two-gendered sitter as “redundant,” and knocks Jillian Mayer’s olfactory work that off-gasses hormones for failing to “activate the space.” Not only is this familiar criticism, but it also offers no sense of vision and trajectory to its subjects.

If “The Exhibit’s” own judges don’t even buy the show’s promise that the museum can play kingmaker for a new class of artists, why should we?

Each competitor could have been granted $100,000 for less than the production budget, and the show’s cash prize doesn’t even match “Work of Art’s,” accounting for inflation. Baseera Khan, “The Exhibit’s” most establishe­d artist, already had a well-received solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. What do they stand to gain? The prize exhibition is only a single work: the winner’s sixth commission for the season finale. While that’s hardly the “exhibit of a lifetime” promised in the trailer, the shrine to the spectacle is sure to be, in Pongo’s words, “career defining.”

 ?? Shannon Finney ?? HIRSHHORN MUSEUM DIRECTOR and “The Exhibit” judge Melissa Chiu, left, speaks with contestant­s Clare Kambhu, Jamaal Barber, Jennifer Warren, Baseera Khan, Misha Kahn and Frank Buffalo Hyde.
Shannon Finney HIRSHHORN MUSEUM DIRECTOR and “The Exhibit” judge Melissa Chiu, left, speaks with contestant­s Clare Kambhu, Jamaal Barber, Jennifer Warren, Baseera Khan, Misha Kahn and Frank Buffalo Hyde.

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