I wasn’t even a minute and a half into episode four of MTV’s The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist when artist Jillian Mayer acknowledged that even though this was a competition, she has a lot of friends on the show whom she described as a “sweet group of talented creatives.” With only two episodes to go, even the magic of friendship cannot revive the show’s fading heartbeat as the competing artists addressed the themes of justice and injustice in this week’s round.

Honestly speaking, this has been the most lifeless episode so far, and that surprised me considering a number of the competing artists’ personal practices tackle intersectionality and minority perspectives. I think what made it so yawn-worthy was the fact that I haven’t seen any growth or inventiveness from the artists thus far (save for Jamaal Barber, whom I’ll get to later), but instead a stagnant reliance on existing skills, knowledge, and canons to win the $100,000 prize and an exhibition at the Hirshhorn. It’s just becoming painful to sit through another episode knowing exactly what each artist is going to create before their studio time even starts.

The formula is that Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu dully reads her lines off of 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 babiest of baby critiques. Everyone wants to make the challenge themes work for their existing practices even though they’re in the perfect environment to try something new and daring or adopt new influences because no one gets eliminated from the show anyways.

Jennifer Warren working on her painting for Episode 4 of The Exhibit

The fleeting highlight of the episode that turned out to be completely anti-climactic was when expanding foam was pouring out of Misha Kahn’s inflatable dolphin pool toy for his sculpture installation of the critically endangered vaquita (which Kahn vacillated between pronouncing as “vuh-quee-ta” and the correct “va-kee-ta”), a Californian porpoise that he apparently learned about only a few weeks ago. I cringed a little when Kahn, as a cisgender White man, declared that animals are “the most marginalized group” because they “literally don’t have a voice.” I mean, he isn’t technically wrong and I have as big of a bleeding heart as the next person, but read the room, bestie.

Clare Kambhu made a large-scale oil and acrylic painting of standard school chairs viewed from above, arranged in a semi-circle reminiscent of in-class discussions. “Are schools places of oppression, places where we can make meaningful change happen, or both?” Kambhu asks through her painting. (Hint: it’s both …) It was technically well done, but tiredly attached to her other chair paintings in a way that made it easy for me to gloss over. Jillian Mayer made a really DIY-looking installation about how social media platforms capitalize on outrage-porn and hiveminds but somehow incorporated filter-feeders and live goldfish … ?

Frank Buffalo Hyde painted a landscape of the granite mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a sacred Indigenous site that was irreparably defaced to create Mt. Rushmore. I didn’t think his style translated that well in this painting, but I was perplexed when Chiu commented that the color blue isn’t typically associated with landscapes and when returning judge Kenny Schachter, whose presence on the show remains a mystery, said it would have never occurred to him to have considered Mt. Rushmore as anything but a feat of human excellence prior to speaking with Buffalo Hyde. I mean … yikes.

Frank Buffalo Hyde’s landscape of the granite mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Jamaal Barber got the short end of the stick this episode when he forgot to trust in his vision. His original commission idea was an abstracted representation of the state-sanctioned murder of 23-year-old Amadou Diallo, a Guinean man who was shot at 41 times by the NYPD in 1999. Barber was the only one this week trying to do something new and take the judges’ feedback into account by steering away from portraiture and figuration, but it was his beautifully painted faces that secured his win in episode three. I certainly give him credit for venturing outside of his comfort zone and exploring new methods and ideas, though.

And, as predicted, Jennifer Warren made another flat, unrefined oil painting even though she very clearly 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 their work, too, which is unfortunate because I thought they would have hit this one out of the park.

At the end of the day, if I can’t have the drama of shade, shit-talking, and outrageous challenges, I just want to see something fresh and exciting coming from these artists. I won’t be holding my breath though.

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...

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