November, 2001
It’s a Beautiful Morning – Beau Monde at Site Santa Fe

By Jennie Klein

If one arrives in Santa Fe, as I did, by first flying into Albuquerque, New Mexico and then driving up Interstate 40, it quickly becomes apparent that there are two competing aesthetics of the American West, both of which play themselves out along the highway. The casinos and their ancillary businesses, blazes of bright lights in what is otherwise, at night, a vast and empty darkness, punctuate the landscape of austere beauty immortalized by painters such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt. Just a few hours drive from Las Vegas, the city of Santa Fe is resolutely quaint, a faux Native American village in which the consumerist underpinnings of the city are elided by its appearance of timelessness. In what seems to be a determined attempt to keep the aesthetic of Las Vegas and the Indian casinos at bay, even such national chainstores such as Home Depot and Borders Books sport sun-bleached adobe exteriors. 

It is perhaps for this reason that the appearance of the Site Santa Fe building, transformed by curator Dave Hickey with the help of Graft Design, a Los Angeles-based design firm of transplanted Germans, and the artist Jim Isermann, comes as such a delightful surprise. For Site Santa Fe’s fourth biennial, the requisite adobe exterior of the warehouse-like structure (formerly a brewery) has been transformed with the ersatz style of Las Vegas, Nevada and Los Angeles, California. Approaching the building from the railroad tracks, the first thing that is visible is Gajin Fujita’s visual translation of the exhibition’s logo, a baroque explosion of lettering anchored by a bird of paradise that bears more than a passing resemblance to a Pokémon. Working with Alex Kizu and Jessie Simon (members of tagger crews), Fujita has wrapped this wild extravaganza of a title around the northwest corner of the building, which overlooks the railroad tracks. This same logo, in the form of a temporary tattoo available at the exhibition, can be wrapped around one’s upper arm as well, although one should probably abstain from doing so in the absence of well-defined triceps and biceps. Rounding the corner, it becomes readily apparent that the viewer is in fact about to enter a beau monde, a beautiful world-or at least something akin to Las Vegas or Disneyland.

Isermann’s iridescent silver plastic disks, woven together so that they resemble a net of precious metal that covers the facade of the building, are beautifully complimented by the entrance bridge of fake flowers designed by Graft Design. So improbable is this vision, that Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, has compared the encounter with “Beau Monde” to Dorothy Gale’s first view of the Technicolor Munchkinland in Wizard of Oz. And indeed, nothing short of Oz (and Judy Garland reincarnated as a Mardi Gras costume by Darryl Montana) awaits the viewer who is willing to pass over Graft Design’s bridge of purple and yellow flowers. A true wizard in every sense of the word, Hickey (also with the help of Graft Design) has transformed the interior space of the building so that its curves and partitions compliment the work of the 36 artists exhibited there (and not the other way around). 

“Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism,” according to Hickey, is not about any overriding theme or collection of regional and national issues. Eschewing what he has characterized as the “sociological exhibitions of multiregional, post-minimal art,” Hickey has instead picked artists that he likes (rather than those that he thinks he should like). The work of these artists is installed in such a way as to emphasize the visual and visceral experience of the viewer’s encounter with it. 

The normally austere kunsthalle has been transformed into a mirage of sensuous curves, colors, and a shocking mirrored wall. Curving tunnels, convex walls, and apse-like protrusions serve as a backdrop for art that is riotously colorful and hedonistically sensual. Bothersome labels and long explanatory texts are completely absent, although a gallery map with minimal information (names, dates, and materials used) is included. In his published writings, Hickey has made no secret of his enthusiasm for the vagaries and unpretentiousness of consumer culture, and in fact “Beau Monde” is a good deal for one’s money, a luscious experience of color and design which can be viewed in a reasonable amount of time.

Upon entering “Beau Monde,” the first thing one sees is Jennifer Steinkamp’s and Jimmy Johnson’s Sin (time), an image of psychedelic circles projected onto a curved overhang. Johnson’s contribution, an electronic soundtrack that is part Philip Glass and part elevator Musak, echoes throughout the building, making it seem as if the riotous colors of “Beau Monde” are singing with energy. Red Carpet, Alexis Smith’s elevated installation from which you can (almost) see the entire exhibition, lies just beyond the curved overhang. The room-filling installation is carpeted by a faux serape rug and contains a painting of heaven on one of the walls, with the caustic observation “Heaven for weather. Hell for company.” on another wall. Directly below Smith’s carpeted room, the abstract works of Pia Fries, Bridget Riley, Frederick Hammersley, and James Lee Byars compliment each other and the exhibition space quite nicely. All of these abstractions have the feel of the early 1960s-one of Hickey’s favorite periods because the culture of art converged with the culture of cars-in spite of having been manufactured rather recently. 

More surprises await in the other five rooms. Hickey was not afraid to put very different visions of a beautiful world together. The contrast between Kermit Oliver’s dreamy and highly personal visions of saints and pigs (elaborately framed acrylic paintings on birch panels) with Jo Baer’ s sculptural canvases (paintings rendered three dimensional with thick stretcher bars and stripes of color that insist on traveling around the edges) is delightful rather than disjunctive. This is due in part to the warm blue-gray walls of the space in which they are installed, along with the ingenuous way in which abstraction is made to go hand in hand with representation. Jeff Burton’s photographs of mundane objects such as afghans and globes, set against a backdrop of calculated sexual perversion and installed in a shocking pink room, is just around the corner from South Cali, Gajin Fujita’s part Ukiyo-e, part grafitti tribute to southern California. A flower arrangement by Marine Hugonnier shares space with an anthropomorphic helium balloon surrounded by flowery smiley faces by Takashi Murakami. Carnivalesque excess in the form of Darryl Montana’s spectacular Mardi Gras costumes (Judy’s Garden, Chief Suit, and King Tut Revisited) are installed next to the government excess (Jessica Stockholder’s Birdwatching, assembled from old equipment found in storage bins the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory). Minimalism, and perhaps post-Minimalism as well, are not actually absent, just disguised, a reminder that in California, Minimalism in the ‘60s was not the product of east-coast-generated theories of what abstract art should be but rather George Barris’s Kustom Kar Shop and the culture of surfboards. James Lee Byars’s glowing white marble Eros, Jorge Pardo’s Boo! (white Corian pedestals made to display Montana’s costumes), and Josiah McElheny’s white dishes (installed opposite his white-on-white quotation of the Viennese architect Adolf Loos) are Zen-like moments of tranquility in what is otherwise a riotous excess of color. Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Black Red Green, a series of four paintings installed opposite four slyly scatological ceramic sculptures by Ken Price, the bad boy of contemporary ceramics, are a reminder that so-called “minimal” art is often more (or less) than an exercise in cerebral machinations. 

Notably absent from “Beau Monde” is the plethora of video and film pieces that usually leave me frustrated by my inability to view everything in one visit. “Beau Monde” does include a short program of films (significant because of the lush quality that distinguishes them from video) whose total running time is less than two hours. Not surprisingly, many of these films are a continuation of the ersatz Western aesthetic that characterizes the rest of the exhibition. Beginning with Kenneth Anger’s erotically charged three-minute 1964 film Kustom Kar Kommandos and ending with Sarah Morris’s documentation of Las Vegas by day and night, the films in “Beau Monde” are redolent of hot desert nights, endless freeways, neon lights, and the illicit pleasure of late-night television. In the middle is Ed Ruscha’s Miracle, a film from 1975 about the miraculous transformation of a mechanic who stands up Michelle Phillips in order to work on a red mustang. Between each film is a three-minute intermission – enough time to go to the bathroom or perhaps sneak outside for a cigarette or something to eat. What was interesting to me, however, was that in spite of the comfortable seating provided (couches and love seats rather than the standard hard benches), my husband and I were the only people who actually watched all of the films. Sated from a surfeit of cotton-candy and potato-chip art (easy to consume and delicious, too), most of the visitors to “Beau Monde” did not want to be challenged by anything so difficult as a film without narrative. 

Hickey has characterized his own tastes as catholic, and there is indeed a certain egalitarianism in the selection of artists, some of whom are old, some young, some hot, some not, some working elsewhere than the West, but most not. The overriding aesthetic of “Beau Monde” (which probably explains why I loved this exhibition) is that of the West Coast. Elsewhere, Hickey has waxed rhapsodic about his love of cars, Las Vegas (his adopted home), jazz (particularly that of Chet Baker), and, of course, consumer culture. This exhibition is about all these things. It is consumerism mixed with hipness, kitsch mixed with the avant-garde. For Hickey, all of this is united in what he calls “good design” – objects that are made primarily for visual rather than intellectual pleasure. “Beau Monde” is a stunning exhibition, one that will probably attract a lot of imitations – some good, some not so good. Hickey’s exhibition is a hard act to follow, however. What might be more interesting than a plethora of exhibitions documenting the beau mondes of various and sundry curators is a re-evaluation of art that has been traditionally included in exhibitions based on its ideological premises rather than its external appearance. Why not throw together a few early pieces by Chris Burden, the films of Mary Kelly, Judy Chicago’s later work (kitsch if ever there was such a thing), the delicate abstractions of Agnes Martin, and the calculated abstractions of Peter Halley? Why not let all of them take their chances in an environment free of heavy-handed curatorial explanations and ponderous wall labels? Why not let ideology in through the back door, so to speak? If we politicize aesthetics, or aestheticize the political, we might permit the political to be beautiful as well. Then we would surely have a beautiful world.

Jennie Klein is a writer who lives in southern California.