Dave Hickey has been the most high-profile West Coast art critic of the last decade, winning the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for 1993‘s The Invisible Dragon, a short book whose central bugaboos — of beauty and the failure of institutional art — set the agenda for the art world in the 1990s. He famously advocated Norman Rockwell as an American master, and his essays on popular culture, collected in 1998’s Air Guitar, garnered him even more accolades. These achievements are all the more remarkable for having been orchestrated from the decidedly inland metropolis of Las Vegas, whose own flirtations with high-cultural legitimacy have generally hinged on Hickey‘s credibility.
Hickey has most recently doffed his critic’s hat to try on the unlikely role of curator for the Fourth International Biennial at SITE Santa Fe. Hickey‘s biennial, opening this Saturday and continuing through January of next year, includes few of the more predictable big-name Kunsthall divas on its roster of artists, focusing instead on idiosyncratic figures like filmmaker Kenneth Anger or glass artist Josiah McElheny. Even the more familiar names are given peculiar roles — Ed Ruscha is represented by his seldom screened 1975 film Miracle, while Jorge Pardo is designing a display for Darryl Montana’s over-the-top Mardi Gras costumes. Hickey‘s quirky inclusions and unusual emphasis on ”scripted space“ (Las Vegas, Disneyland, Versailles, etc.) have him sounding at times more like an artist than a curator or a critic, but he insists, ”If anything’s weird about this show, it‘s that there are a lot of biennials by people who have their right foot in Cologne or in New York, and I’m standing with my right foot in Los Angeles. And so the primal aesthetic is probably a West Coast aesthetic. And I didn‘t find that limiting at all.“ The Left Coast–leaning list of artists, including locals ranging from Ruscha, Stephen Prina and Alexis Smith, to softcore photographer Jeff Burton and Japanese-American South-Central graffiti artist Gajin Fujita (whose tagger logo for the biennial adorns invitations and the exterior of the SITE building), bears him out. Hickey spoke by phone in the midst of installing his show.
L.A. WEEKLY: The title of the show, ”Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism“ — what does it mean?
DAVE HICKEY: The exhibition opens on Bastille Day, and I like the idea of the Beau Monde in its broadest interpretation. I also like the impudence of the subtext of social elitism, which I was trying to undermine with Gajin’s graffiti tag and with the general egalitarian spirit of the show. As for the [subhead], biennials, to me, have become these cosmopolitan occasions for celebrating mythologies of the autonomy of the local. The same holds true for Santa Fe, of course, which is a very cosmopolitan city devoted to fantasies of the local, so I thought I could maintain the cosmopolitan aspects of both the city and the practice and come up with something that would look a little bit different.
Have you taken this opportunity to address what you find lacking in most biennials?
You have to admit that biennials have indeed done a lot of work in exposing artists around the world and creating an international network of artists and connections. My idea was to honor the letter of the biennial law and perhaps subvert the spirit of it. You simply couldn‘t select a show of this sort right now without coming up with racial, ethnic, regional and gender diversity. I wanted to expand that at the beginning of the 21st century to include generational diversity, and the minute you include generational diversity you start including stylistic diversity. In my view, this is mostly what biennials have suppressed. In other words, what we have is art from around the world in a global, post-minimalist style.
I’m interested in the way cultures express themselves in their stylistic eccentricity. I‘m interested in local styles, I’m interested in local manifestations of international styles. Rafael Soto springs to mind. I mean, here‘s a Venezuelan constructivist — this is an extremely unusual blend. You have the rigors of constructivism and the underlying romanticism of Latin American modernism blended together, and it seems to me to be a wonderful amalgam. Most of the works in the show are visually, internationally, available. You look at them, and you know what you’re looking at. At the same time, they‘re extremely particular to the region. Soto is a Latin American artist. Fred Hammersley is a quintessential California abstractionist who comes right out of Van Doesburg and Dutch painting. It’s that sort of impurity and that sort of cultural resolution that I found myself focusing on. Since I‘m not a curator and this really is a one-off, I’m just making up — like fantasy football — my fantasy art team. I‘ll never ever get a chance to do a show with these resources again, where I can get a Rafael Soto from Paris and get Takashi Murakami to come over — that’s a real privilege. So I‘m taking advantage of it in an extremely self-indulgent way.
Jim Isermann did the facade, Jennifer Steinkamp made a new video projection, and Alexis Smith contributed a giant Pueblo rug. Who else is doing site-specific work?
Takashi Murakami’s doing a new balloon piece to go under this little churchlike niche, and Josiah McElheny is designing this white room as an homage to Adolf Loos‘ American Bar in Vienna — that’s sooo Beau Monde, Belle Epoque even. Jessica Stockholder‘s doing a big piece in the backroom, a piece I can’t quite figure out — it contains pots and furniture and Los Alamos control panels. Marine Hugonnier is coming in to do these large bouquets she designs out of local flora, then paints with floral pigments, and which are replaced during the run of the show. And Jorge Pardo designed these lovely little blobs that go up the wall and on the floor as settings for Darryl‘s Mardi Gras costumes.
Those are some of the most surprising things you’ve included.
I discovered that this ”cosmopolitan“ art resolves itself in extreme simplicity at this point of generalization, like [in Ellsworth Kelly] where France and New England intersect, or it resolves itself in this complex mix of iconography, like Gajin‘s or Darryl’s work. You look at these Mardi Gras costumes, which are technically outsider art — they‘re made for three or four parades every year, the guys sew on them all year, they go out and march in them, representing their tribes — and you see these incredible mixtures of American Indian influence, a great deal of ancien regime, late-18th-century court costumes, Aztec bird-god costumes, Caribbean Mardi Gras costumes, all blended into this glorious bricolage. Darryl’s the fucking Schiaparelli of this shit. He‘s a very inventive guy. Darryl is currently the chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe, which is basically composed of Creoles. His father was the first great master of Mardi Gras costume design — his name is Tootie Montana. He was the person who civilized these marches and everything, investing all their competitive edge into the spectacularity of the costumes. He was talking about all this, and he said, ”Before I come, everybody say, ’Get tough.‘ After Tootie, everybody say, ’Get pretty.‘“ If there’s anything here to do with my theory of beauty, that‘s pretty close. It’s one of those primal sublimations: the civilization of competitiveness.
Does that run through all the art in ”Beau Monde“?
It runs through most art that is social and competitive. An institutional take on art that suppresses the competitive nature of the objects you‘re making tends to take something fairly vital out of the whole activity. Competition is not fighting. And winning is not killing. You know what I mean? They’re not the same thing. Competition‘s not violence — in fact, it’s the first not-violence. You can‘t compete without your competitors. It’s a social activity. So I think to presume that we‘re dealing in this realm of autonomous expressions to which we ascribe no real value is sort of foolish. I don’t think art is about anything else but value. There‘s really only one question — is it good or bad, and why, and let’s argue. I want to win, in the sense that if I get the show to look the way I want it to look, what everybody else thinks is interesting to me, but if everybody hates it I won‘t consider it a failure. That’s a new aspect of the art world for me.
I’m going to go home and read three 700-page books. I just got [Louis Menand‘s] The Metaphysical Club. Curating does not have enough reading and writing involved with it. It really doesn’t have enough looking involved in it, you know?
Do you think ”Beau Monde“ will set an example for how it can be done differently?
I honestly don‘t think so, but it might serve as permission for others to make up their own fantasy teams.