Taking a Critic at His Word

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Dave Hickey--possibly the hippest art critic in America--is holding forth as usual. His gravelly, Southern-inflected voice rolls out like distant thunder, promulgating one elegant idea after another and cloaking them all in down-home tones. His subject today, by phone from his home in Las Vegas: the art-show species known as the biennial.

He's already on the record when it comes to these institutionalized extravaganzas, from the venerable Venice Biennale, now running in Italy, to attempts to attract art tourism to far-flung cities such as Istanbul or Havana. His conclusion? Boring!

He told a writer for the magazine Artpapers that the international biennial circuit was "nothing but a bunch of trade shows for provincial curators."

Now it's Hickey's turn. Invited to put together the fourth Site Santa Fe biennial, in the American Southwest's picture-perfect capital, it remains to be seen if Hickey can make things more interesting. "Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism" opens Friday at the refurbished warehouse that is Site Santa Fe's headquarters.

It incorporates a custom-designed exhibition space, work from six countries and 27 artists, and a prodigious mix of media and genres.

In his curatorial statement, Hickey wrote, "I begin this project without any preconceived notion of what a beau monde, or 'beautiful world,' might be, only with a confirmed confidence that most artists have their own ideas about it--their own vision of how a beau monde might look. Meanings will arise after, since what I have in mind is not an ideological point that I wish to prove, but an exhibition that I want to see ... a small beau monde, a place unto itself, informed by the complexity of global culture at the millennium."

Now, over the phone, Hickey elaborates on the notions of complexity and cosmopolitanism.

"All [the 'Beau Monde'] artists manifest what I call impure styles, their styles are not tied to their location, they are acquisitive styles. I am not interested in purity and identity; I'm interested in where cultures overlap, blend and interpenetrate." Having Dave Hickey curate a biennial of his own was Louis Grachos' idea. "I thought of inviting Dave because his writing has been so influential over the past 15 years," explains Grachos, director of Site Santa Fe for the past five years. "I thought he could do a show that was tied to his personal vision of what art can be, knowing it would be quite different from most international biennials."

Hickey's vision--as promulgated in catalog essays, reviews, books, and lectures at museums and universities--was once summed up by Times critic Christopher Knight this way: "For him, art is magical precisely for its stunning--and stunningly useful--capacity to reorganize the audience." That is, it rejects boundaries like class, race, cultural identity and gender in favor of mix-and-match, high-and-low democracy.

Which is a lot like the man himself. A native of Fort Worth, Texas, he holds degrees in English literature and linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin, where he started his first art gallery in 1967, showing the work of Ed Ruscha, among others. In the late 1960s, he moved to Manhattan to run an art gallery, became executive editor of the magazine Art in America, then fled to Nashville in 1976 to write country-western songs and play rhythm guitar with the Marshall Chapman Band.

During the 1980s, he returned to freelance writing and began teaching. Which led him in 1992 to his current position, professor of art criticism and theory at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Although he's 62, Hickey's rebellious instincts still run, albeit at a low throttle. By his lights, the problem with art today is that it's forgettable.

"In the practice of art," he says, "there is always a trade-off between the specificity of meaning and the memorability of form. I think we have erred a bit in the direction of art that has specific meaning but a very short shelf life."

Shortly after Grachos tapped him, he told a Santa Fe newspaper, "We've been through 20 years of art and I can't remember anything. If a piece is going into a museum to fill up space for 20 minutes and disappear, or if it's there to bear a particular message or remind us of something we're to feel guilty about, then none of this becomes very important." So how memorable, and how different, will Hickey's biennial be?

One of his many peeves as a critic is the cold, even hostile, neutrality of contemporary exhibition spaces. From the outset, he commissioned Graft Design, a group of young German architects with offices in Silver Lake and Berlin, to redesign parts of the Site Santa Fe warehouse.

"Why not make the warehouse accommodate itself to the art?" Hickey asks. "I like Graft Design because temperamentally they are more like a rock 'n' roll band than an architectural firm. They could deal with the perpetual fluidity and collaboration, which is what happens when you design a show."

Graft began by moving the main entrance to the side of the building.

That led the way for L.A. artist Jim Isermann to create a facade of glimmering silver squares backlighted with white light that glows like a 1950s UFO.

Instead of typically neat-and-clean exhibition signage, Hickey commissioned a 15-foot-high logo for "Beau Monde" that combines Latino graffiti and Japanese tattoo flash--created by L.A. artist Gajin Fujita--and emblazoned it around the side and front of the building.

Hickey chuckles: "I wanted to contrast Fujita's East L.A. tagging with Isermann's Palms Springs Constructivism. I think that is a resonant contrast."

Tired of didactic wall labels at museums? "Beau Monde" features only a map of the gallery and checklist. The viewers are asked to come to their own conclusions.

The map will be helpful. The Graft designers have carved the warehouse into traditional spaces required by Hickey.

There is an identifiable entryway illuminated with a projection by Jennifer Steinkamp, and the Petit Salon for a commission from Alexis Smith, two of the many L.A. artists Hickey tapped for the show.

There's the Grand Hall, with a circular doorway, containing the sensual marble sculpture of the late New Mexico artist James Lee Byars. Adjacent will be the Grand Salon with venerable abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly's 40-foot-long multi-part painting. A long chapel-like space terminates with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami's anime -pop sculpture in a niche. The equivalent of a French mirror salon reflects Canadian artist Jessica Stockholder's sculpture constructed from Los Alamos nuclear plant castoffs and one of 78-year-old Venezuelan Jesus Rafael Soto's 20-foot optical constructivist paintings.A couch-filled film room contains DVDs of work by Texas photographer Nic Nicosia and Britain's Sarah Morris, as well as the 16-millimeter films of "Hollywood Babylon" author Kenneth Anger, and films by Ruscha (the seldom seen "Miracle"), L.A.'s Stephen Prina and the British sisters Jane and Louise Wilson.

Hickey has made the unusual decision to embrace three generations of artists in the show. "There are quite a few mature artists," he says. "Many shows privilege regional, ethnic and gender diversity. I wanted to privilege generational and stylistic diversity, as well."

So the lapidary abstract paintings of octogenarian Frederick Hammersley, one of L.A.'s Abstract Classicists in the '50s, hang with those of British painter Bridget Riley, known for her Op Art of the 1960s, alongside the projections of Steinkamp, who first exhibited in the late 1990s.

Similarly, the ceramics of L.A.'s established Ken Price will be shown on pedestals along with youthful New Yorker Josiah McElheny's ghostly installation re-creating the interior of Adolph Loos' 1920s American Bar in Vienna.

"The fact is that art influence does traditionally skip generations," he says. "You see influences of Riley and Jesus Rafael Soto in the work of Isermann [or] Steinkamp. But it comes back without all the high ideology, just the attitude of how you make things is retained."

Elsewhere in the show, ricocheting off of one another are abstract paintings by renowned New York Minimalist Jo Baer, Arcadian landscapes by Texas Pre-Raphaelite Kermit Oliver and elegantly erotic photographs by L.A.'s Jeff Burton. French artist Marine Hugonnier designs tables on which she arranges bouquets of flowers that she paints with floral pigment as living still lifes. German artist Pia Fries shows a 20-foot post-Conceptual painting in self-conscious reworking of extravagant, colorful marks like those of Willem de Kooning.

Besides the exterior works by Isermann and Fujita, Hickey commissioned four other site-specific installations. One went to Alexis Smith, who created a 25-by-35-foot red, orange, yellow and black striped carpet resembling the pattern of a Rio Grande serape, traditional Southwest landscape painting and abstract art. It will be installed on a platform facing a wall painted with a skyscape.

Hickey says of the piece: "She brilliantly integrated the landscape and the indigenous art of New Mexico and the art of the show. In this, her work is pivotal. You can't look from the landscape to the rug to the Bridget Riley painting without making those connections. She is the only person I set an ideological task, but that is what she does best, art and culture."

L.A. sculptor Jorge Pardo, who comes from Cuba, designed pedestals and settings for the Mardi Gras costumes of New Orleans' Darryl "Mutt Mutt" Montana.

Montana is not the sort of artist usually invited to an international biennial. But Hickey calls him "the Christian Dior of Mardi Gras costumes."

"These Mardi Gras tribes, which are large social organizations of Creoles in New Orleans, used to march and fight, but now they compete with their costumes," Hickey says. Montana, who is Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Tribe, designs costumes combining Caribbean and Native American inheritance with that of France.

"The Creole community are self-consciously of French descent," Hickey explains. "If you think of these costumes in terms of court wear at Versailles, it makes sense. They are one of those primary expressions of the cosmopolitanism of American culture. Plus, they make showgirl costumes look like Speedos."

Hickey says he included Montana for the same reason he had Fujita execute the graffiti logo. Although Fujita belonged to one of the major tagging crews in L.A., his Japanese parents educated him in traditional Japanese art.

"Grafting that onto the Hispanic medium of tagging is quintessentially Los Angeles," Hickey says.

"I included them both as classic examples of cosmopolitan art. When Hickey considers what meanings will arise from "Beau Monde," it takes him back to the idea of contrasts, variations, the unusual.

"One of the interesting things," he says, "is that cosmopolitan art tends to be either simpler or more complex than mono-cultural art, that is, art that expresses the identity of one culture, without influences.

"As you accumulate a lot of the iconography of cultures, like Murakami, or make art exist at that abstract point at which cultures intersect, like Bridget Riley, it is [either] more complex or simpler. So the show has a peculiar tone of being half ultra-complex, half ultra-simple with very little in between, and none of what we would call particularly normal."

And that should help "Beau Monde" meet at least one of its goals.

"The poet John Ashbery once said that once we discover that life cannot be a perpetual orgasm, the best we can expect is a pleasant surprise," Hickey explains. "I would like for this show to be a pleasant surprise."

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* "Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism," Site Santa Fe's fourth international biennial, Friday to Jan. 6, 1606 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, N.M. (505) 989-1199 or http://www.sitesantafe.org.

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