(Spoiler alert: this article contains information and plot points from the second episode of The Exhibit.)
As the saying goes, no risk, no reward. This week is no exception for the seven artists competing on The Exhibit, a new six-episode docuseries created by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and MTV. With only seven hours allotted to make a piece, many of the artists pushed themselves outside of their comfort zones.
Feelings of rivalry held over from last week’s competition opened the second episode, but then seemed to dissipate amid a flurry of art making.
Guest judges Samuel Hoi, the president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, where the artists’ studios are located, and JiaJia Fei, a digital strategist currently working with the Hirshhorn, are introduced at the top of the show.
This week’s commission highlights a global obsession with social media. The artists are judged on originality, quality of execution, and concept of work, with a reminder from Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu that “Great art always has a strong point of view, so don’t hesitate to show yours.”
The spirit of immediacy was on full display, as the artists grappled with the ways in which social media has impacted art and creative processes, as well as our lives overall.
While we have yet to understand the full impact of social media on art and culture, Fei pointed out that it has increasingly become a point of discovery and connection among creatives: “The first thing I do when I hear of a new artist is I look them up on social media. I look at their work.”
Chiu adds, “There used to be a hierarchy very much between popular culture and fine art. These kind of hard lines that were very much a part of society before have kind of dissipated with social media.”
Some of the best ideas in the group prodded at this blurring of boundaries between life and art, the personal and the professional, the real and the perceived reality. Clare Kambhu created a still-life painting of a phone showing a school desk with writing on it and a gridded wall of old cell phones recreating the image of the painting in fragmented form, while Jillian Mayer constructed an interactive sculpture made of industrial materials intended to support individuals on their phones—an ongoing series she affectionately calls “slumpies.”
Perhaps the most personal embodiment of the assignment, however, was Baseera Khan and their relationship to the rising cultural phenomenon. Khan, who created a moving collaged selfie with enhanced body parts, grew up orthodox Muslim and described their family’s confusion over them wanting to be an artist.
“I started sneaking behind my family’s back to take art classes,” Khan said. “When I was younger I didn’t have access to people that looked like me, thought like me—Muslim people of color. So, being in social media and getting into a network meant that I could talk to people that are likeminded.”
Khan explained how important it was for them to pave the way for marginalized groups and how, following their solo exhibition “I am an Archive” (2021–22) at the Brooklyn Museum, their family finally saw them as an artist.
Frank Buffalo Hyde, whose painting captured an Indigenous Buffalo dance through a cellphone, likened the developing technology to those of the past such as the cotton gin and steam engine—an apt comparison that pointed to how the rise of social media has been used as both a vehicle for personal connection and political dissent.
This impulse informed this episode’s inspiration: Ai Weiwei’s 2009 list of the names of more than 5,000 children who were killed in a building collapse following an earthquake in China.
In the studio, connections began to form between the mixed media sculptors Khan, Mayer, and Misha Kahn, who offered each other guidance while constructing strange material amalgamations, while their counterparts appeared mildly annoyed by the resulting noise.
As the artists installed their works, it became clear that certain pieces were not quite coming together as anticipated. Last week’s winner Jennifer Warren appeared to lack confidence in her paintings, while Jamaal Barber’s linocuts were still wet when installed. Kahn, who created a conveyor belt meant to simulate the unending doom scroll, yet again struggled to realize his vision with haphazard found materials. This round, all the works came together without a hitch or any major drama.
A crit from Chiu, Fei, and Hoi highlighted some of the successes and failures of each piece. In their opinion, Warren’s series of paintings considering the curated self as presented on social media was “too on the nose.” Barber’s prints also fell flat, not capturing enough of that scrolling sentiment, while Kambhu’s presentation between the cellphones and painting could have been more polished.
According to the judges, it came down to three pieces: Khan’s collaged selfie, Buffalo Hyde’s painting, and Mayer’s sculpture. Though all three presented solid works, Khan’s collage presented a multi-layered perspective that paved the way for a clear victory—one that seemed unanimous among the judges and contestants alike.