(Spoiler alert: This article contains information and plot points from the sixth episode of The Exhibit, a docuseries created by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and MTV.)
As season one of The Exhibit comes to a close, the artists are tasked with creating a self-portrait that captures who they are today—a tall order with only eight hours to complete the final assignment.
As Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu urges the contestants to expand their definition of a self-portrait, she presents this week’s inspiration from the museum’s collection: Andy Warhol’s 1986 Self-Portrait, which challenges the superficial nature of celebrity identity, and Ragnar Kjartansson’s 2015 video work Me and My Mother 2015 (excerpt), in which the artist has instructed his mother to spit on him.
Alongside Chiu, guest judges writer and artist Kenny Schachter and collector Keith Rivers return. They judge the works on the basis of originality, quality of execution, and concept of work. All the pieces are reviewed for this week’s challenge as usual and then three artists are selected to present another work, which they will make at home over the course of two months, for the annual Hirshhorn Ball in Washington, D.C. The winner of the competition, including a showcase at the Hirshhorn and a $100,000 prize, is revealed at the event.
Some immediate standouts include two paintings by Clare Kambhu showing her birthmark and scar from a medical procedure gone wrong, Frank Buffalo Hyde’s black-on-black profile of himself, and Jillian Mayer’s video selfies.
“If you take a photo of yourself, you own it. But, if you upload it to the cloud, who ultimately owns it? The company,” Mayer says about her resulting work. “My parents also filmed my birth. So, I’m on VHS—I didn’t even consent to that…. I have to think about my existence in a very mediated way.”
Baseera Khan also focuses on their likeness in a fragmented photo collage using scans of their face, while Misha Kahn continues to bring humor into the studio—this time putting his face directly into a mold that he then places within a continental breakfast and uses to make a bust, paired with a virtual reality painting.
Jennifer Warren revisits the hearse driver while also painting a self-portrait in her workspace. For his final project, Jamaal Barber returns to linocut with a joyful portrait of himself and his family.
This episode didn’t leave much time for the final challenge and felt rushed as the contestants worked toward securing one of the three spots for the ball. Chiu, Schachter, and Rivers headed up this week’s crit. In their opinion, Khan’s collage lacked some of the depth that others presented, while Barber’s print left them wishing he had shown the linocut itself.
Warren’s oil paintings were well received for their intermingling of the personal and the historical—a thread she has followed since the beginning of the competition. Kambhu was hailed for her bravery in proudly painting her scar and birthmark, and for sharing her story.
The judges thought that Mayer’s video really called attention to the ownership we have over ourselves and would become increasingly thought–provoking over time. With Kahn’s sculpture and virtual painting, they felt that he nailed it—the longer they looked, the more they saw.
It was Buffalo Hyde’s subtle, yet powerfully subversive painting, however, that brought him the win. In his black-on-black work with “Invisible Indigenous” written across his shirt, the piece speaks to this process of erasure felt among native communities.
“I don’t do self-portraits,” says Buffalo Hyde. “So, it is a rarity. And the way that I made it, I tried to render it in a simple way.”
After a quickly celebrated victory, wherein everyone expressed feeling good about challenging themselves over the last six weeks, three finalists—Kambhu, Kahn, and Khan—were selected to continue to the ball.
Kambhu, who feels that she now has an arsenal of new techniques from the competition, presents a large painting of two upside–down school chairs. The judges remarked that she has present intelligent and strong pieces throughout the show’s run.
In a surprise selection, despite not having won any of the challenges, Kahn moves forward with an unconventional diptych of a 3-D printed lamp with a collaged painting.
Similarly, Khan also presents a 3-D printed self-portrait, which draws inspiration from an 18th-century Naro Dakini liberation goddess in the Hirshhorn’s collection. “I have been waiting my whole life to do the work that I’m doing now,” says Khan. “The ideas are flowing through me like a hurricane.”
At a Pop art–themed ball, the three finalists mixed and mingled with guests and art world notables alike before receiving a final crit from Chiu, Schachter, and Rivers.
Presented with a sense of humor and pain, Kahn’s diptych lamp and painting captures the unsettling feeling of never quite fitting in. It’s his sense of imagination and his ability to create his own world that the judges feel make him a true artist.
Kambhu, who paints to “feel human,” as she explains, within a dehumanizing system, rose to the occasion with the scale of her painting. Her ability to shine a light on systems and institutions through her lived experience in a vital and thought-provoking way is her strength, the judges believe.
In their sculpture, Khan captured a sense of timelessness by using the past to express issues in the present. The judges felt that Khan’s work makes others think about how they fit into the world. Ultimately, it was their ability to speak to universal issues in such a personal way that clinched Khan the victory in the competition, as well as the showcase at the Hirshhorn and the $100,000 prize.
Kahn and Kambhu hugged Khan, who stands shell-shocked at their win and begins to cry.
“[Baseera]’s done such an extraordinary job in this final sculpture of bringing together what are a lot of important personal issues, and she’s transformed them into her art,” says Chiu. “I really think that this is an opportunity that she’ll be able to grow within a really, really important way.”