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Art Is Dead. Let's Have a Drink.

A frequent visitor to Texas, Dave Hickey is one of those art critics whose essays achieve the elusive: They make art fun for the non-artist. He writes about art and cars, art and guitars, art and reruns of Perry Mason. He is a studied art-world renegade, a critic on behalf of Margie and Joe next door: He lives in Las Vegas when everyone else lives in New York or L.A.; he advocates beauty when beauty is passe; he argues for democracy when everybody else is a snob.

The child of a peripatetic jazz musician and a Marxist painter, Hickey presents himself as the last bohemian, railing against both the presumptuous herd-riding of academics and art bureaucrats, and the "consensus of desire" produced by Hollywood. An avid student of what he calls "the butterfly effects of cultural eccentricity," Hickey even takes a small part of the credit for the fact that funk band Parliament-Funkadelic landed a major-label deal. He is by turns infuriating and delightful: on one hand, a falsely modest personality whose claims to coolness include carrying a bottle of encrusted heroin residue in his luggage (whatever, Dave); and on the other, one of the few critics who displays genuine sentiment and deep affection for the culture he chronicles. No one can better explain the impact of an Andy Warhol movie, or the historic tension between hot and cool expression. In short, Dave Hickey the critic is a blessing.

But lo and behold, Dave Hickey the curator turns out to be a cynic. When he came knocking at DiverseWorks with an idea for a show of artists mostly from Vegas, DiverseWorks intelligently invited him to come right in. There is a dearth of serious, contemporary curation in Houston, and Hickey represented the hope of a remedy. But though his show's execution is seamless -- right down to the artists' names painted in cursive script on the walls -- his idea was deeply flawed from the beginning.

"Ultralounge: The Return of Social Space (with cocktails)" claims to be an "effort to redeem the lounge," positing a place "where people might actually enjoy being and being together." The gallery's entrance has been paneled with mirrors and adorned with a glitzy marqee. On either side, convex paintings of giant flowers on black velvet curve like warped universes in some feminine video game. Inside, a giant boomerang-shaped rug of black Astroturf glistens. The gallery is semi-lit, and some of the paintings are bathed in black light. Lights shine through a stencil, throwing images of clean-cut white palm trees on the wall. The decor is what you might call "skeletal casino." In its fakeness, it's reminiscent of the soundstage set of the fancy restaurant where the characters on Three's Company used to take their important dates. But here at "Ultralounge," disco is a distant dream, and there's no place to sit.

The central flaw of "Ultralounge" is that social space never went away. Right here in town, any number of actual lounges operate, quite in the dark about their own need of redemption. In fact, the number of lounges per se may be dwindling, as by my calculations the swank revival has swept past the hipsters and on to the lawyers; probably the next fundraiser to cure colitis will feature a lounge theme. But any bar, coffee shop or living room is a place where people "actually enjoy being together," and do it quite successfully, without any help from art at all. At DiverseWorks, would-be loungers are trapped in a gallery, would-be art is trapped in someone else's upscale concept, and meanwhile everyone could be having a drink together in a cushy booth at the bar down the street.

What comes across in "Ultralounge" is that it's not social space that needs help. It's art.

Instead of the art redeeming the space, the space damns the art. It emphasizes the most banal and vapid, purely visual aspects of the work, making it difficult to see individual pieces outside of their roles as sophisticated props. Even critic David Pagel, who wrote one of the catalog essays for the show, didn't find much depth to plumb. He describes various artists' submissions as "the visual equivalent of mood music," "the visual equivalent of static," "nonstop stimulants that let the party go on and on" and evocative of "a genie who lived in a lava lamp."

Only one piece really works: a computer-generated video projection, itself as immaterial as the projections of palm trees. Not only is there no real object present, what is pictured never existed in real life, either. Sun Porch Cha-Cha-Cha, by Jennifer Steinkamp and Andrew Bucksberg, is an abstraction that a cat curled up on a porch swing might see: Pillars and posts kissed with a computerized ray of sun filter lazily past each other with a slow back-and-forth rhythm. By allowing spectatorial shadows to pass in front of the image -- a claim Pagel makes for other, less successful works in the show -- it engrosses the viewer in a renewed discovery of pattern and syncopation.

Some of the art in the show deserves the treatment Hickey gives it. Superslick, Vistavision-shaped paintings by an artist named Yek welcome the viewer as evolved alien life form, suavely trying to persuade the audience to accept style as the new substance. Washed with color and sporting stripes and squiggles reminiscent of auto pinstriping, these jaded paintings don't just fail to take any reponsibility for their own existence as art, they fail to attempt to take any responsibility for their own existence.

But other artists in the show warrant a better look. A thread of a retro-kitsch, indeed loungelike, aesthetic winds through all the works Hickey has chosen, but many of the artists are quite formally specific and have developed sensibilities that would be far more clear in the "religio-educated" white cube of the type of gallery Hickey so despises. Jack Hallberg, for example, affixes slick little sculpted suckers of acrylic -- variations on those discs that stick your bathmat to your tub -- to his canvases to create wild, glow-painted sea creatures engaged in a cold-blooded underwater dance. Think '60s kitchen-appliance designs, and you'll have a pretty good idea where Hallberg's preferences lie.

Jane Callister's Loungescape #1 consists of three fake-leather padded panels of the sort on which you might mount a hunting trophy, arranged in the shape of a pelvis. On the middle panel, Callister has painted a frothy, sunset landscape. Far meatier than many of the other works in this highly airbrushed exhibit, Loungescape acknowledges natural appetites beyond the fetishized atmosphere.

Wayne Littlejohn gloms together weird plaster sea creatures, fish and coral tinted the colors of underbelly and faded fiberglass fishing boats. Coiled around red and irridescent marbles, they glower mutely and mysteriously. It's obvious what Hickey likes about both Yek and Hallberg: They are suckling at the teat of low taste. But at the "Ultralounge," Hickey asks them to be the very things they should transcend: the car and the decorative beach souvenir.

I can hear, in the back of my mind, Hickey asking, "Why?" Why should such marvelous things, the kinds of things that ordinary people like, be transcended? My only answer, really, is that things are things and art is art. One can't fight the tyranny of high taste and over-refinement simply by replacing it with a tyranny of low taste and a good case of heartburn. I want something more.

The exhibit in DiverseWorks' satellite gallery, Subspace, functions as a comment scribbled in the margin of the tepid manifesto of "Ultralounge." The tiny show is called "Only Ever Half Transcendent" and is based on curator Robert Montgomery's idea that today's artists work in a climate where transcendence is not quite possible. "Ultralounge," dragging art into the cheap debate over what might look good hanging above the couch, has the same idea, of course -- that's one reason the art in it is so cold. But in the Subspace, at least the artists are trying. They are, as the title says, halfway there. Compared to the earnestness of Tommy Everett's arrangements of computer paper and Plexiglas, urgently smeared with an unguent of paint, or Matthew Sontheimer's absurdly loving pencil renderings of his Third Grade Shoe (a Puma) and his Fourth Grade Shoe (a Fred Perry sneaker), the art of "Ultralounge" looks like a woman whose plastic surgeon has ironed out the laugh lines and scrolled back the furrows of worry.

Everything is okay, "Ultralounge" seems to be saying, as long as it looks good. Which is the ultimate bastardization of what I suspect Dave Hickey really means: that beauty is a blessing, that enjoyment is better than investment, and that slick orchestration never guarantees a good time -- even with cocktails.

E-mail Shaila Dewan at shaila.dewan@houstonpress.com.

"Ultralounge: The Return of the Social Space (with cocktails)" is on view at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 223-8346, through June 20.


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