Small Wonder

Beauty is fleeting in a pair of shows at the University of Dallas and Mulcahy Modern

Had some wickedly funny novelist set out to satirize the excesses of contemporary art, she could do worse than to open the action at Wonder, the current show at the University of Dallas' Haggerty Gallery.

The place to start would, in fact, be with Bettie Ward's CV, which sits at the table right inside the door. Like Ward, who is one of four artists included in the University of Dallas exhibition, the heroine of our novel should possess a B.F.A. in sculpture, art's catch-all category, from a second-rate art school that eschews teaching technique--a place like San Antonio's Art Institute, Ms. Ward's alma matter. She should be someone to whom form matters little, in medium or in message, and this would be reflected in her résumé, which would be filled with typos and misspellings and happenings.

She would describe herself as does Ward: a "diverse artist" who "work[s] in many mediums from paint, sculpture, weaving to video and performance." And above all, she should list among her accomplishments a long series of efforts like Ward's 1995 "performance piece": "extemporaneous singing for an hour with a percussionist...playing everything from my kitchen that makes noise...while a dancer covered only in mud takes a bath in the gallery." Or "Hambone," Ward's 1991 "piece," in which Ward claims to have "buried Sarah Bird in 200 lbs of salt while singing 'Hambone,' a healing ritual." Or, best of all, "This is your life Dave Hickey, 1964," in which Ward apparently "found someone Dave had taught when he taught English twenty years ago and used thae [sic] information to surprise him. Some people do't [sic] do well with surprises! at [sic] UTSA in San Antonio."

Untitled 2001 photograph by Robert Hamilton, now on view at Mulcahy Modern
Untitled 2001 photograph by Robert Hamilton, now on view at Mulcahy Modern


Wonder shows at the University of Dallas' Haggerty Gallery through May 8. Call 972-721-5087.

Robert Hamilton's satellite runs through May 8 at Mulcahy Modern Gallery. Call 214-948-9595.

The point here is not to poke fun at Ward, who is too easy a target; indeed, I have singled her out because she has promise. (Contrast Ward's contributions with those of Cindy Hurt and Sally Packard, two artists in the Wonder show whose work is so weak and derivative that it isn't worth reviewing.) The problem seems to be that Ward, like many young artists, has bought into current art-world bromides such as the notion that form matters not, that meaning is everything and that presenting anything new or slightly challenging is the artist's highest calling. Fealty to the great and honorable traditions of art has no place in this value scheme. Shielded by obtuse theory, advocated in impenetrable prose, contemporary art has abandoned all pretense to standards, craft and quality, and the result is a generation of artists like Ward, who hops from medium to medium like a kindergartner with ADD.

Ward's work in Wonder illustrates these trends and shows why they do promising young artists no favor. Ward's contribution to the show consists of four pieces of embroidery on Chinese silk, presumably designed by Ward and executed by "Lupe." There is nothing new or particularly challenging about the form, but the content is another matter. In fact, despite the sloppiness and lack of discipline and technique, Ward appears to be trying to communicate some very interesting things. Each embroidery contains a bizarre and original vision, something like "Retrieving the 4th Monkey": A raven-curled, blue-eyed young woman in neo-renaissance bustier, a long skirt with a bustle or perhaps wings, and purple-manicured nails drags a simian by the hair over--what? Leaves? Flames? And what to make of "The General and the Beauty," a hilarious vision featuring a general in army-green uniform top and halo who is naked from the waist down? Our military man is flying half-staff, contemplating a naked, pink-haloed, dark-haired beauty carrying an apple.

The work is intriguing, despite the hackneyed form, and I find myself desperately wanting to help her draw it out, to provide an interpretation, to suggest a more generous form for communicating. Anyone with Ward's anarchist impulses can't be all bad, and she's got the good sense to slap around Dave Hickey. Unfortunately her visions are not sharp or focused, and so the work eludes translation, coming off as moderately clever but mostly curious, vaguely feminist moralizing.

Ward's 13-year-old swipe at Dave Hickey reminds me that contemporary art isn't the only discipline mired in perversity. Curiously, few local news outlets have picked up on the fact that Hickey, a Texas ex-pat who was briefly (and, Hickey's friends say, unhappily) the Startlegram's art critic, has been declared a bona fide genius by no less than the likes of Time magazine and the MacArthur Foundation.

In December, Time named Hickey to its "Time 100." And last fall, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation named the 62-year-old Hickey one of 23 new MacArthur Fellows, an award only slightly less prestigious and even more mysterious than a Nobel. No one applies for a MacArthur Fellowship; they are instead handed out by a 12-member selection committee, which gives the lucky winners $500,000 each. Recipients of the fellowships, often called "genius awards," are not required to produce anything for the honor. They even get health insurance.

A number of locals who noticed this development in art criticism have shared my editor's response: Gee, how do I get one of those? And the correct answer is the one I gave her: Hey, if Dave Hickey is a genius, you may be one, too. Hickey's beknighting shows the depths of the swamp in which art criticism is mired, a sad state of affairs wherein a writer with half-baked artistic philosophies but enviable style can be declared philosopher-king. One suspects Hickey was the only critic whose stuff the 12-person committee could get through.

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