Santa Fe

Clockwise from top left: Ed Ruscha, Miracle, 1975, film still. Jimmy (Jim Ganzer). Jeff Burton, Untitled #48 (afghan), 1997, color photograph, 60 x 40“. Bridget Riley, Evoe I, 1999–2000, oil on linen, 6' 4” x 19' 1/4".

Clockwise from top left: Ed Ruscha, Miracle, 1975, film still. Jimmy (Jim Ganzer). Jeff Burton, Untitled #48 (afghan), 1997, color photograph, 60 x 40“. Bridget Riley, Evoe I, 1999–2000, oil on linen, 6' 4” x 19' 1/4".

“Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism”

For those desperate to jump from Venice Biennale curator Harald Szeemann’s “Plateau of Humankind,” SITE Santa Fe provides the perfect place to land. Devoid of slo-mo videos and feel-good/feel-bad Cibachromes, “Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism,” curated by Las Vegas–based critic Dave Hickey, turns the tired notion of an international biennial on its ear and spins it, discovering in its trajectory all sorts of patterns and ideas. Sophisticated and subtly elegant, the show represents the antithesis of the yahoo perversity that Hickey’s detractors mistakenly attribute to him.

Shifting the rhetorical emphasis of a biennial from the “international” to the “cosmopolitan” is Hickey’s brilliant stroke, allowing him to trump art’s “One World/One A-List” hand with a show full of wild cards. Globalism here is manifested by artists who fuse several cultural and formal styles in their work. Gajin Fujita’s painting and facade mural, for example, mix the stylization of Japanese Edo woodcuts with LA Latino graffiti graphics. Jesús Rafael Soto’s large wire relief, whose vibrating, bifurcated circles resemble hungry Pac Men, blends austere constructivism with Op effects and Venezuelan oomph.

The impurity nurtured by this collection of maverick artists demonstrates the aggregative flux of contemporary culture without PC sermonizing or it’s-a-small-world sociology. Melding the local with the global, the formal with the sensual, the old with the new, these artists make work that inhabits rather than announces identity politics. Mixing references to Egyptian, Aztec, Native American, French, Caribbean, mummer, showgirl, and drag-queen cultures, the looming eight-foot Mardi Gras parade costumes of Darryl Montana illustrate how New Orleans’s Creole gang rivalries have been sublimated into a fabulous one-upmanship of furious ostrich plumes, megacount sequins, and marabou madness.

Heartening too is Hickey’s decision to add a cross-generational influx to the sanctioned biennial ethnic and gender mix. In fact, oldsters steal the show, with solid and decidedly hip works by Kenneth Anger, Bridget Riley, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha, Frederick Hammersley, and Ellsworth Kelly. Although Hickey includes his share of emerging artists, “Beau Monde” demonstrates that art-historical digging is a lot more exciting than trolling the art schools. Why net guppies when you can go deep-sea fishing and catch Jo Baer’s sharp ’70s reliefs? Baer’s work fits effortlessly into the current revival of Op and Color Field painting. In muted desert stripes, her low-riding horizontal painting H. Arcuata, 1971, presents a morphed vector that hugs the work’s top edge before slashing across the right corner of a wide-open expanse.

Hickey manages to avoid the programmatic and rather random-feeling historiography of Catherine David’s Documenta X and Jean Clair’s 1995 Venice Biennale by including work by older artists that appears totally of the moment. Looking completely fresh, James Lee Byars’s Eros, 1992 (the sole inclusion by a deceased artist), transforms a Minimalist trope into a kind of sensual essence. Neatly placed on top of each other, two rectangular hunks of glistening Thassos marble suggest a streamlined couple flagrante delicto. Horizontality never felt so right. And in Love Me, Love My Dog, 1972, Frederick Hammersley tweaks austere hard-edge painting in a way that seems very twenty-first century, slyly opposing an off-white square with one in a hue that should be dubbed “Old Yeller.” Both Hammersley’s works and Riley’s new hip-toned mind-teaser of a pattern painting seem perfect strokes of breezy classicism, ideal for today’s Gucci/Neutra mind-set.

The eclecticism of the modestly sized show is orchestrated in an extraordinarily tight design scheme organized around formal contrasts of geometric hard-edge and organic blob. This yin-yang dominates the exhibition’s central gallery, with Pia Fries’s accumulation of luscious frostinglike smears, thick clawmarks, and caked-on trails of paint successfully holding its own next to Riley’s crisply executed array of pulsing leaf shapes. The building’s exterior also presents the dialectic: Fujita’s swirling graffiti unfolds on a side wall, and the front facade glimmers with Jim Isermann’s pristine, Factory-silver relief of diamante-patterned, vacu-formed plastic.

To accommodate this stripped-down aesthetic push-pull, Hickey, assisted by German architecture firm Graft Design, has transformed the former beer warehouse into a House of Style. Graft Design is credited with the fake sunflowers lining the ramp outside that leads visitors to a vision of the Emerald City of Oz—an astonishing open vista of the galleries within, appearing vast thanks to mirrored panels in the furthest space. In the formal entry area, accompanied by quietly pulsing electronic music, Jennifer Steinkamp & Jimmy Johnson’s Op-baroque video is projected onto a curved ceiling. Below its throbbing patterns, the keyed-up, serape-striped rug of Alexis Smith’s adjoining installation spreads out on a slightly raised platform that intimates a kind of petit salon—complete with sconce and painted mural. Smith’s wall text reads “Heaven for weather. Hell for company,” an assessment of the ideal afterlife for which the artist has rolled out the red carpet, leading viewers into her mural’s fiery desert sunset. Compelling and awesome, Smith’s heady installation is a rightly ambiguous welcome to the apocalyptic west.

Hickey’s “chateau” also features a boudoirlike gallery of polished, decorator-pink stucco lined with Jeff Burton’s luxuriant photographs, mostly shot at porno-film sessions. These C-prints amalgamate blurry masses of entwined flesh and crisp details of high-homo decor. In one, nebulous body parts abut a sinuous expanse of arabesque marquetry—a tasty blend of the raw and the cooked.

The large, mirrored rear gallery serves as a kind of ballroom. There, Montana’s giant amoeboid feather dusters dance between Soto’s relief and Jessica Stockholder’s theatrical installation Bird Watching. Conceived for this space, Stockholder’s clean-lined scramble of sliced wallpaper, wood, and interwoven carpet fragments centers on a stage constructed from a pile of electronic equipment scavenged in nearby Los Alamos. Paint-slathered thrift-store couches invite study of the high-flown geometry at play.

The structural climax of the exhibition occurs in a stunning, brilliantly lit white-cube space, a sort of formal stateroom where a meeting seems in progress between rival potentates from the West and East. Dramatically perched on pedestals, four of Ken Price’s gorgeously quirky, sensuously amorphous sculptures—probably the craftiest artworks of our time—face off against a quartet of Ellsworth Kelly’s sharply colored, perfectly tweaked rhomboids, gleaming on the opposite wall. Here, the Organic and the Geometric stare each other down and negotiate détente.

Striking this accord throughout, “Beau Monde” represents a series of domestically conceived spaces in which contrasting, defiantly individualistic formal styles manage to complement one another in counterpoint. The resulting harmony creates a kind of socialized space—a home for wayward artworks. But Hickey isn’t out to reform these delinquents. His cosmopolitanism upholds the independence of styles. The show is, as he puts it, “a melting pot in which nothing melts.” As curator, Hickey combines these distinct flavors not into a stew but into a five-course meal—one that might not be good for you but is tasty and appealing on the plate. There is even room for modes and media for which he has never evidenced much passion. The sole figurative fish out of water is midcareer Texan painter Kermit Oliver, who punctuates the show’s relentless stylishness with quirky, mythic surrealism. Given the dialectical parameters of the exhibition, Hickey might have done well to pair Oliver’s tight renderings with figurative works in a loose or expressionistic mode by someone like, say, Charles Garabedian or Judy Glantzman.

The film and video selection evinces the only energy lapse. The program begins with a hot bang: Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos, 1959, a paean to body worship of the automotive persuasion. Edited to the swoon of the 1959 pop song “Dream Lover,” the short film—featuring a cherry hot rod being stroked by a big fluffy powder puff—is a masterful pastel turn-on that blows away the entire crowd of contemporary art-school filmmakers. Next, craftily building tension and suspense out of thin air, Ed Ruscha’s film Miracle, 1975, transforms a mechanic’s obsession with a broken carburetor into an over-the-top quest for—no kidding—human dignity and spiritual transcendence. After these unexpected ecstasies, it was all business as usual with laborious and mannered efforts by Stephen Prina, Nic Nicosia, Sarah Morris, and Jane and Louise Wilson.

In only a few works does the style-conscious hybridity Hickey advocates slip into a kind of fashionable tourism. Takashi Murakami’s installation of a swollen-headed balloon god and his loopy flower minions remains stuck in manga meretriciousness, still lacking the baroque uplift that is claimed for the artist. Josiah McElheny’s whiter-than-white installation/homage to Adolph Loos’s American Bar shrouds its glass-blown charms in overly familiar PoMo self-referentiality. And Jorge Pardo’s commissioned pedestals for Montana’s costumes, conceived as sad plastic floor mats, fail to add anything to the exhibition and only confirm the LA artist/designer’s extraordinarily overrated status.

So what does Hickey’s self-proclaimed “jewel box in the desert” finally prove? First, the simple but now revolutionary notion that a good exhibition is the result of experienced looking, i.e., connoisseurship. Second, that a biennial can maintain regional, ethnic, gender, and generational diversity while concerning itself chiefly with formal issues. In his catalogue essay, Hickey remarks, “The visible resolution of cultural dissonance has its moral and mental consequences, its social allegories, its uses and functions.” This advocacy suggests the ability of formally resolved art to do more than offer a snooze in Matisse’s comfy armchair: to promote civilized discourse, create joy, increase sensory acuity, sublimate discord, foster a “beau monde.” Given the degraded status of contemporary art in our culture, these are radical claims indeed.

Michael Duncan is a critic based in Los Angeles.