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MTV’s The Exhibit is worth a look thanks to the strength of its modern artists

MTV’s The Exhibit is worth a look thanks to the strength of its modern artists
Jennifer Warren, a contestant on The Exhibit: The Next Great Artist (Photo by Paramount)

“The experience of entering a competition about art is really strange,” Clare tells us at the start of The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist.

Also really strange: finding a terrific competition about visual art on MTV, of all places, a network that is barely alive, airing after RuPaul’s Drag Race (tonight at 9, then Fridays at 10), in a timeslot that formerly hosted the worst show of the year so far, the Real Friends of WeHo.

A person in a black t-shirt with his hands on a table, which is covered in bunches of fabric materials
Misha Kahn, a contestant on The Exhibit: The Next Great Artist (Photo by Paramount)

But even though the shows take very different approaches to craft, tonally and otherwise, The Exhibit does fit with RuPaul’s Drag Race, because it, too, is a competition between artists being tested under extreme pressure.

While shows such as Project Runway and Top Chef also ask professionals to demonstrate their talent under unreasonable time constraints, the extreme time pressure seems especially odd for an art competition, as it did on Bravo’s weird and wonderful Work of Art.

“Today feels so rushed,” Clare says about the challenge, which gives the artist just 10 hours to create a piece of art and install it.

The Exhibit partially addresses this by following The Great British Bake-Off’s lead and giving its contestants advance notice about the challenges they’ll face: six weeks to conceive and plan their work, though not actually construct it. As the challenge begins, they have all the materials they need at the ready.

The group of seven artists competing for an exhibition at the Hirschhorn in Washington, D.C., are at varying stages in their careers, but all clearly very accomplished artists—and great characters, too. Talking about his experience, Frank Buffalo Hyde eventually just says “Google me, bitch.”

“Who knows about fire safety?” Jillian asks while working on her piece, looking at the cameras. “Anyone?”

The work the contestants produce in the first challenge is, to my eye at least, technically strong and conceptually delightful, from Clare’s encaustic to Misha’s “snatched banana,” a “sexy, femme banana with her seeds spilling out,” a traditional painting to a glass sculpture that has diffusers spewing distilled estrogen and testosterone into the gallery.

An aproned painter in front of a table with a large painted canvas, and several small paint containers
Jamaal Barber, one of The Exhibit: The Next Great Artist (Photo by Paramount)

Dometi Pongo from MTV News—I honestly did not know MTV News still existed—hosts, but I’m not quite sure why, as his role isn’t yet clear. That’s in part because Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirschhorn, first greets the contestants, and gives them access to the museum, and introduces the challenge.

The tour of the Hirschhorn’s vaults and galleries is the only use of the museum itself in the premiere, as the contestants’ workshop is not even in D.C., but in Baltimore at the MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art.

But The Exhibit itself makes good use of the Hirschhorn’s collection, showing us pieces as points of reference, and placing the challenge in context.

A portrait of a person with their arms crossed
Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirschhorn, and lead judge on MTV’s The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist (Photo by Parmaount)

Chiu describes modern and contemporary art as something that “makes us think and feel” and “reflects the now,” and their challenges will follow. The first challenge’s theme is simply “gender,” and the artists’ approaches to that are very different, ranging from literal to abstract.

The judges don’t seem to love the more literal expressions, but don’t really explain why something is “too obvious” for their tastes. Their judging does hone in on specifics, though, of both craft and concept, and feels more accessible than I recall of the judging on Work of Art.

Still, the contestants’ presentation of their work and the following “crit session” (at which the contestants are not present) is choppy and compressed, hitting specifics about the criteria (oriignality, quality of execution, and concept of work) without giving us depth or real conversation.

In another smart format decision, no one is eliminated after individual challenges, though the show itself seems confused by what exactly the challenges are for.

Early in the episode, Dometi says that they can win the whole thing without winning individual challenges, but later in some awkward voice-over, says the winning contestants will be in a “better overall position with the judges when they decide on the final three.”

That sounds like a bad network note to me (give us some stakes!), but I’m also not clear on what the individual challenges are being used for. One contestant, Jennifer, uses her painting to introduce a theme that’ll appear in later works, so is she building her exhibit now, piece by piece? Is that what they’re all doing? Or will their final project be different?

The prize is clear: the ultimate winner of The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist will get an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Hirschhorn.

But while art itself doesn’t need a purpose, I’d like to know what the purpose of creating these pieces is in the context of the competition. Even without that clarity, though, I’m looking forward to seeing what this group of artists create each week, and their different approaches to the theme and challenge.

The show might be subtitled “Finding the Next Great Artist,” but one of its real strengths is that these are all great modern artists right now, and as a venue exhibiting their work, The Exhibit is pretty great, too.

The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist

MTV’s modern art competition offers both great art and artists B+

What works for me:

  • the artists and their work
  • the competition’s non-elimination format
  • the use of the Hirshhorn’s collection

What could be better:

  • More time and depth with the artists’ presentation and judges’ critiques
  • More clarity on the end game

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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