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Taking a Critic at His Word

Dave Hickey has a low opinion of biennials. So when he was asked to organize one, he aimed high.

July 08, 2001|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is an occasional contributor to Calendar

SANTA FE, N.M. — 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."

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