Santa Fe prides itself on restricting any construction that might interfere with the town's carefully preserved Spanish mission architecture -- except for the concrete and steel facility that is home to Site Santa Fe, the hip art center located far from the town's central plaza.
As part of its mission to show challenging contemporary art, Site Santa Fe has staged three international biennials, two of them organized by curators with established reputations on the international show circuit, Francesco Bonami in 1997 and Rosa Martinez in 1999. Two years ago, a woman tripped over a floor installation but otherwise, the shows had little to inspire outrage and fury.
Enter Dave Hickey.
As guest curator, Hickey has organized "Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism," an exhibition of 27 international artists that is currently on view in lovely Santa Fe, July 14, 2001-Jan. 6, 2002.
Letting Hickey organize an international contemporary art exhibition in Santa Fe is like introducing a komodo dragon to a bunny farm.
Known for his biting and incisive criticism in various magazines, as well as two anthologies of essays, Hickey has achieved the inconceivable. As a working art critic, he has accrued the popularity and public acclaim of a rock star.
Prone to wearing a baseball cap and cropped rayon jacket advertising a casino, talking in his gravelly southern accent, Hickey looks more like an oil wildcatter at the high roller table than an art critic of refined sensibilities.
Yet, the Fort Worth, Texas, native holds graduate degrees in English literature and linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin, where he started his first art gallery in 1966 showing the work of Ed Ruscha, among others.
In the late '60s, Hickey 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 songs for country-western acts and play rhythm guitar with the country-rock Marshall Chapman Band.
During the '80s, 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 in Las Vegas.
Hickey is 62 but his rebellious instincts still run, albeit at low throttle. To prepare for "Beau Monde," he considered the institutionalized nature of biennials, from the venerable event held this summer in Venice, Italy, to the attempts to attract art tourism in far-flung cities like 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."
Louis Grachos, director of Site Santa Fe, explains, "I thought of inviting Dave because his writing has been so influential over the past 15 years. I thought he could do a show that was tied to his personal vision of what art can be, knowing that it would be quite different from most international biennials."
How different? One of Hickey's many peeves 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 Silverlake and Berlin, to redesign parts of Site's warehouse galleries. "My point is why ask someone to make something for a warehouse? Why not make the warehouse accommodate itself to the art?"
Moving the main entrance to the side of the building led the way for L.A. artist Jim Isermann to create a façade of glimmering silver squares backlit with white light to make the entire building glow like a 1950s UFO.
Instead of the typically neat exhibition lettering, Hickey commissioned a logo for "Beau Monde" that is a combination of Hispanic graffiti and Japanese tattoo flash created by L.A. artist Gajin Fujita and emblazoned 15 feet high on the side of the building and wrapping around 20 feet of the front. Hickey chuckles, "I wanted to contrast Fujita's East L.A. tagging with Isermann's Palm Springs Constructivism. I think that is a resonant contrast."
Hickey told the Santa Fe Reporter, "We've been through 20 years of art in which 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."
By contrast, Hickey's choices are designed to be emphatically memorable, with more heft given to the visual than the conceptual. 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."
Hickey made the unusual decision to embrace three generations. "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, a member of L.A.'s Abstract Classicists in the '50s, hang with those of British painter Bridget Riley, known for her Op art of the '60s, alongside the abstract light projections of L.A.'s Jennifer Steinkamp, who first exhibited in the late '90s.
Similarly, the ceramics of L.A.'s established Ken Price will be shown on pedestals while youthful New Yorker Josiah McElheny's recreates in ghostly white part of the interior of Adolph Loos' 1920s American Bar in Vienna.
Among the seven site-specific installations is L.A. artist Alexis Smith's 25 by 35 foot red, orange and black striped carpet resembling the pattern of a Rio Grande serape, traditional Southwest landscape painting and abstract art. It is installed on a platform facing a wall with a painted skyscape.
Hickey says, "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 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."
Hickey had L.A. sculptor Jorge Pardo, who comes from Cuba, design pedestals and settings for the Mardi Gras costumes of New Orleans' Darryl "Mutt Mutt" Montana.
Montana is an outsider artist, not the sort 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. "They make show-girl costumes look like Speedos."
Hickey says that he included Montana for the same reason that 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."
Hickey has chosen art that draws from various cultures as way of emphasizing the regionalism of other international biennials. "Most biennials deny their cosmopolitanism. I'm not interested in the regional, I'm interested in where cultures overlap, blend and interpenetrate."
"All these artists manifest what I call impure styles, their styles are not tied to their location, they are acquisitive styles," Hickey adds. "Japanese artist Takashi Murakami accommodates the traditions of Italian sculpture, American cartoons and traditional Japanese practice. Since I am not interested in purity and identity, I'm interested in the way cultures learn from each other, the way individual artists accumulate cultural influences."
"One of the interesting things 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 Riley, it is 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 what we would call particularly normal."
"Artistic influences skip generations so you see influences of Riley and Jesus Rafael Soto in the work of Isermann, Steinkamp or Pardo. But it comes back without all the high ideology, just the attitude of how you make things is retained."
Graft has planted giant plastic flowers in the faux garden in front of Site. They carved the concrete box into the traditional spaces that Hickey required: an identifiable entryway illuminated by Steinkamp's projection, a petit salon for the Smith and a grand hall with a circular door containing the sensual marble sculpture of the late artist James Lee Byars. Adjacent will be the grand salon with the venerable Ellsworth Kelly's 40-foot-long multi-part painting. A long chapel space terminates with Murakami's sculpture in a niche, and the equivalent of a French mirror salon reflects Canadian artist Jessica Stockholder's sculpture constructed from Los Alamos nuclear plant cast-offs and 78-year-old Venezuelan Jesus Rafael Soto's 20-foot optical Constructivist painting.
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. They can relax on couches in the film room watching DVDs of work of by Texas photographer Nic Nicosia and Britain's Sarah Morris or the 16 mm films of Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger, Ed Ruscha's seldom seen Miracle as well as films by L.A.'s Stephen Prina and the British sisters Jane and Louise Wilson,
"I wanted to do a personal essay," Hickey says. "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 adds. "I would like for this show to be a pleasant surprise."
"Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism," Site Santa Fe's Fourth International Biennial, July 14, 2001 to Jan. 6, 2002. 1606 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, N.M. (505) 989-1199 or www.sitesantafe.org.