Small Wonder

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."

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.

Hickey, of course, is known for being the foremost defender of beauty in art, a postmodern Ruskin who advocates "the subversive potential of visual pleasure." In other words, if it's accessible, and thus popular with the middle class, it's OK by Dave. As one might suspect, there's an impish quality to such arguments; Hickey will take propositions to such absurd lengths that you can't help but feel he's putting you on. According to Hickey, dealers, who "only care about how it looks," are the heroes of contemporary art, while curators, who for the most part care only "about what it means," are well-meaning but misguided villains. For four centuries, Hickey argues, beauty was the art world's intellectual coin of the realm, the common language through which arguments were advanced, the tool of the "visual litigation" that all great works of art conduct.

I kept waiting for the process server, looking for arguments in the undeniably beautiful work of Ann Stautberg and Robert Hamilton. Stautberg's oversized, hand-tinted photos of the Texas coast are on view as part of the University of Dallas' Wonder show, while Hamilton's small photos and hand-sanded oils on panel are hanging at Mulcahy Modern Gallery.

Stautberg, the stronger of the two artists, continues her Texas Coast series, employing a large-scale format to play up the threatening skies, the forlorn, bleak beauty that is familiar to fans of her work. The chief difference in these works seems to be a new adventurousness in her hand-tinting. One of the photos, "6.22.99, A.M., Texas Coast, # 1," is the most successful work of this series I've seen. In it, Stautberg finally achieves abstraction, using a funky, oblique angle and gorgeous color to frame her typically confused Texas sky, filled with both ominous dark and fluffy white clouds and featuring only a black palm tree in the lower left to orient the viewer.

For all their beauty, for all their feeling, Stautberg's Texas Coast photos are, in the end, mood pieces, sad and forlorn elegies to a moment that passes and is forgotten. They contain no important ideas, no arguments worth remembering. Thus they provide support not for Hickey's thesis, but for the arguments of the theorist Arthur C. Danto, who argues that beauty is in fact incompatible with interesting art, or at least inappropriate for our "Age of Indignation."

Hamilton's show features new work, photographs shot through colored filters, as well as the oils on panel familiar from his past shows. The photographs were taken during Hamilton's recent honeymoon in Japan, and Mulcahy, Hamilton's dealer and bride, likes to tout their "Zen-like qualities." There is a simple beauty to the images of waves and rocks and skies shot with red filter, as well as Christmas lights in Zurich (taken on another trip), and a phosphorescent jellyfish floating against a magical blue background. In the end, however, the photographs express awe and wonder but little else. Though they set out to induce hypnosis or meditation, they fall short of inspiring one to reveries on the weather or jellyfish or the natural world, and they do not cause one to see or feel or think anything not seen or felt or thought before. The best piece is the photo of Christmas lights, a photo with an echoing, funhouse effect, an effect that piques a mild technical curiosity in the viewer, but quickly passes.

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Christine Biederman