Those who feel that paintings are best viewed when an art critic stands right smack in front of them may be drawn to "On Exhibit: The East Building of the National Gallery," like moths to a porch light. Otherwise, this WETA production, at 8 tonight on Channel 26, is a disorganized and doggedly artless video tour.
The half-hour special, first in a series on gallery openings, starts out as an introduction to I.M. Pei's much-discussed new structure, but then wanders off among four current exhibitions, including "The Splendor of Dresden." At the turn of every corner, viewers are instructed on what to think and how to react by art critic Frank Getlein.
Getlein already proved, during an arduous only one and undistinguished year on WJLA's "7:30 Live," that he is unable to read or speak naturally or convincingly into a television camera. So, of course, producer Hal Hutkoff and director Jim Eddins chose to prop him up like a mannequin all over the museum, and Getlein recites at us in such a bionic and pedantic way that he evokes memories of "eductional" television, as public TV used to be called.
There is absolutely no reason for Getlein to be on camera. His narration could easily have been a voice over. Even with that improvement, though, the flowery and professorial script he wrote needs plenty of toning down. Perhaps in an attempt to make the art on display more accessible to viewers, Getlein alternates academic pomposities like "paroxysm of elaboration and ornamentation" with such bucolic colloquialisms as "make no never-mind." It is Alistair Cooke crossed with Gomer Pyle.
For all the talk of cubism, abstract expressionism and constructivism, "On Exhibit" really represents a mode that has become a curse: blockheaded zoomism. Director Eddins feels the camera must zoom out of or into any object that isn't moving; so he sets up a regular lulling visual rhythm. If the title "Zoom" weren't already being used on public TV, it would be just right for this show.
The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz grant that made this program possible should have been given instead to some enterprising local video group whose members look upon such projects as challenges, not as perfunctory local programming obligations.