I wasn’t even a minute and a half into the fourth episode of MTV The exhibition: Find the next great artist as artist Jillian Mayer admitted that despite being in competition, she has many friends on the show, which she described as a “cute bunch of talented creatives.” With only two episodes left, even the magic of friendship can’t revive the series’ waning heartbeat as the competing artists in this week’s round addressed themes of justice and injustice.
Honestly, this was the most lifeless episode yet, and that surprised me, considering that a number of the competing artists’ personal practices engage with intersectionality and minority perspectives. I think what made it so gaping was the fact that so far I haven’t seen any growth or inventiveness from the artists (except with Jamaal Barber, which I’ll come back to later), but rather a stagnant reliance on existing skills, knowledge and canons to win the $100,000 prize and an exhibition at the Hirshhorn. It just gets painful to sit through another episode knowing exactly what each artist will create before their studio time even begins.
The formula is that Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu dully reads her lines from cue cards, co-host Dometi Pongo uses his reality TV voice to convey the next challenge, the painters paint and the sculptors sculpt, and then everyone gathers for the tiniest baby critique. Everyone wants the challenge themes to work for their existing practices, despite being in the perfect environment to try something new and daring or embrace new influences, since no one is left off the show anyway.
The fleeting climax of the episode, which proved utterly anticlimactic, came when Misha Kahn’s inflatable dolphin pool toy erupted into expanding foam for his endangered species sculptural installation vaquita (Kahn hesitated between pronouncing it as “vuh-quee-ta” and the correct “va-kee-ta”), a California bottlenose dolphin he apparently only found out about a few weeks ago. I winced a little when Kahn, a white cisgender man, explained that animals are “the most marginalized group” because they “literally have no voice”. I mean, he’s not technically wrong and I’ve got as much heart and soul as the next person, but read the room beast.
Clare Kambhu made a large format oil and acrylic painting of standard school chairs viewed from above and arranged in a semicircle reminiscent of classroom discussions. “Are schools places of oppression, places where we can make meaningful change, or both?” Kambhu asks through her painting. (Hint: it’s both…) It was technically well done, but tired of hanging on to her other chair pictures in a way that made it easy for me to overlook it. Jillian Mayer made a really DIY-esque installation about how social media platforms benefit from outrage porn and hiveminds, but somehow include filter feeders and live goldfish…?
Frank Buffalo Hyde painted a landscape of Granite Mountain in South Dakota’s Black Hills, a sacred indigenous site that was irreparably defaced to create Mt. Rushmore. I didn’t think his style translated well into this painting, but I was taken aback when Chiu commented that the color blue is not typically associated with landscapes, and when judge Kenny Schachter returned, whose presence on the show remains a mystery, said it never occurred to him to consider Mt. Rushmore as anything other than a feat of human excellence before speaking with Buffalo Hyde. I mean… oops.
Jamaal Barber lost out in this episode when he forgot to trust his vision. His original commission idea was an abstracted account of the state-sanctioned murder of 23-year-old Amadou Diallo, a Guinean who was shot 41 times by the NYPD in 1999. Barber was the only one trying to do something new this week and heed the judges’ feedback by moving away from portraiture and figuration, but it was his beautifully painted faces that secured him victory in episode three. However, I definitely appreciate him for venturing out of his comfort zone and exploring new methods and ideas.
And, as predicted, although she was very clear, Jennifer Warren painted another flat, unrefined oil painting knows how to draw and that would have made more sense for the comic strip she was doing. Baseera Khan’s head didn’t feel like it was in the game this week and it showed in her work as well, which is unfortunate because I thought they knocked that one out of the park.
At the end of the day, when I can’t have the drama of shadows, shit talk, and outrageous challenges, I just want to see something fresh and exciting coming from these artists. But I won’t hold my breath.