By competing on the new reality series "The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist," painter Frank Buffalo Hyde knew that for better or worse, he'd be representing Indigenous artists.
Turns out he's repping Minnesota, as well.
At the pandemic's height in 2020, Hyde and his family moved from Santa Fe, N.M., to Northfield, where his wife, a ceramicist, got a job at St. Olaf College. He was living here when a casting agent contacted him. At first, he ignored it, thinking it was a prank.
But he ended up signing on. The MTV and Smithsonian Channel series, in which seven artists compete for $100,000 and an exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., seemed like "a great opportunity to highlight what I do and hold space for contemporary Native American artists."
That's a responsibility non-Indigenous artists don't have, but one that he, as an Onondaga painter, has dealt with his entire career. The 48-year-old knew that if he said no, somebody else would have done it, leaving him throwing stuff at the TV, yelling, "I could do a better job!"
And after the losses of the pandemic, Hyde promised himself that if he made it through, he'd say yes more often.
It's been more than a decade since a reality TV series has tackled the art world. "The Exhibit" bypasses some of the genre's conventions, including weekly eliminations.
"It seemed antithetical to the process of evaluating art, which is inherently subjective, to send someone home every week," said Nadim Amiry, vice president of original series at MTV Entertainment Studios and Paramount Media Networks.
Instead, by judging the artists' body of work at the series' end, "it gave us the ability to really get to know these artists and understand how they view the world." Three episodes in, a second contestant revealed his Minnesota ties: Sculptor and furniture designer Misha Kahn was born in Duluth. He now lives and works in New York.
Deciding to include Hyde in the show was "one of the easier decisions," Amiry said.
He's a "highly credible painter" whose work appears in galleries across the country, including the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. "Frank's unique perspective on the role of Indigenous artists in today's society made him a really powerful voice in the series."
'Where I'm me'
The show's second challenge hit Hyde's sweet spot.
The judges, including the Hirshhorn's director, Melissa Chiu, asked the artists to create — in seven hours or less — pieces that "reflect the world's love affair with social media." Some of the artists work in 3-D, some with mixed media. Some, like Hyde, paint.
For years, Hyde has used bold colors, pop icons and clever titles to comment on the modern Native American culture, including its commodification. That includes toying with the way our screens have mediated our experiences; the phone is a frequent frame.
So when the show said "go," Hyde began painting, against a red-orange backdrop, buffalo dancers' feet in traditional regalia. But the piece's focus is a phone being held in the foreground, capturing the scene.
He didn't win the challenge, but during the episode's "crit session," guest judge JiaJia Fei, a museum digital strategist, called it "a beautiful painting."
"Out of all the work here, it's the one that looks to me the most like art ... the one I would take home with me and add to my own collection."
Going into the show, Hyde was nervous about how he'd be edited, about how he'd look onscreen. But his jitters faded each time he entered the studio.
"That's my jam," he said. "That's where I'm me."
While some of his competitors played with wild, 3-D sculptures — think a giant, inflatable, resin banana — and tried new materials, Hyde stuck to his strength: painting, and quickly. Over his decades of working with acrylics, which can set six to 12 layers in a day, he accepted too many shows with a too-tight turnaround. Then his daughter was born, and speed became "a professional imperative."
With each of the show's six challenges, he said, he was the first to finish.
In a bright garage-turned-studio, Hyde loaded his brush with black paint. With smooth, sure strokes he outlined one figure, two.
Behind him hung a 6-by-10-foot mural layered with faded imagery from his childhood near Syracuse, N.Y. Athletes in motion. An old-school Big Boy logo. The former Syracuse University mascot, the so-called Saltine Warrior, in profile.
He takes hold of their built-in narratives, then tweaks them.
"I'm reclaiming that tapestry," he said of the piece, titled "You're in Onondaga Country," a play on the old banner, "You're in Orangeman Country."
Hyde grew up 6 miles outside of Syracuse, on his mother's Onondaga reservation. But he also spent lots of time in Santa Fe, where he assisted his father, a sculptor, in the studio. After playing in a rock band, he attended the Institute of American Indian Arts, studying writing before focusing on painting.
A gallery owner told him, at age 18, that painters hit their stride in their 50s. "Bullshit," he thought then. "But I kind of understand what they were trying to tell me, now that I'm in that neighborhood.
"There's no shortcut," he said. "You have to do the work, have to put the hours in the studio.
"I have been doing this for over 25 years but I feel like I'm just getting started."
In small, strange ways, his past prepared him for reality TV. He and his wife, Courtney M. Leonard, had a studio in Santa Fe that was open to the public. There, they often worked outside as folks passed by and became comfortable making art in front of people.
He also stopped competing, long ago, with anyone but himself. Even on a show based on competing with other artists?
"Especially on a show where I'm competing with other artists," he said. "It doesn't faze me at all."
He has begun to incorporate the experience into his artwork, ever winking. A canvas in the corner of his studio features a familiar red logo: "As Seen on TV."
"The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist" airs Friday at 9 p.m. on MTV.