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Writer in Residence: The Adulation of Idiots

Dave Hickey smiles at the camera in front of a colorful wall mural
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On Dave Hickey, taste, and working artists embracing the local

During a panel talk at the 2012 Las Vegas Book Festival — I forget the nominal topic — the late art critic Dave Hickey, in full-tilt quote-machine mode, uncorked this doozy: “I don’t give a shit about local artists. If you were any good, you wouldn’t be a local artist.”

Boom! Many rows back in the auditorium of the Historic Fifth Street School, I might’ve audibly chortled as I thumb-typed this provocation into my phone, immediately recognizing its high resale value in my social feeds, which included more than a few local artists. Though he was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by then, Hickey’s long years of gnomic eminence in Las Vegas meant his words still carried some weight here. He fired off a mighty barrage of zingers that day — “I often write out of a sense of malice” being one, and “I’m a critic. I don’t gain anything from the adulation of idiots” being another — but for me, the local artists crack had more depth, a sharper bite. It’s the one I still remember; I had to look up the other two.

One reason it’s stuck with me is that it seemed to crystalize something interesting about those years. Famous in cultural circles as the critic who nudged the topic of beauty back into art-world discourse, Hickey was an outsize persona from the great beyond in a town that embraced such characters. With his louche charisma, spontaneous quotability, and MacArthur genius grant, Hickey was arguably the city’s dominant cultural figure for much of the 1990s and early 2000s. (This isn’t to erase his wife, Libby Lumpkin, herself an influential scholar and curator somewhat less given to buzzy public comments.) Frequent national attention followed him, the novelty of a maverick art critic living it up in vulgar Vegas being too much fun for journalists to resist — when he and Lumpkin left town in 2010, The Wall Street Journal wrote it up.
A guy like that parking his big reputation in what was basically an ordinary, mid-sized city’s arts scene surely seemed to many like just the zap of worldly validation this place needed to help incite the next cultural growth spurt. And Hickey did write often and brilliantly about Las Vegas — as a convivial place, a playground of ideas, a motherlode of signifiers, a welcoming social construct, and, in some ways, a work of art itself.
But there was an elephant in the gallery: As more than one person pointed out, Hickey didn’t write very much about our city’s art. Not surprising, I suppose. Having gone deep on top-tier art stars, Hickey needed bigger writing prompts than he was likely to find in the downtown scene, which he once described to me as “a bunch of people painting skulls.” That’s what not giving a shit sounds like.

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ONE OF THE things I’ve enjoyed most about being a journalist in this town for almost 40 years, along with the nonexistent dress code and free newsroom donuts, has been the license to follow my interests. Which means I’ve spent a lot of time talking to artists, writers, and theater people, loitering in studios and galleries, asking dumb questions, and typing about local culture. (Among other things, that led me to interview Hickey several times.) Sure, there are flashier, more important beats, but as much as casinos and politics shape our lives, it seems clear in hindsight that what I really wanted was to figure out how smart, creative people adhere to this place that I was frequently ambivalent about. The arts seemed the best place to look.

That was the headspace I typically carted around the Arts District when I went down there during the Hickey years. Questing, hopeful. Back then there were periodic surges of energy in the Arts Factory or along Main Street, a sense among people I listened to that the arts scene was about to pop big. If it now seems quaint to remember them invoking New York’s SoHo neighborhood as a model, it’s also hard to blame them: Surely a city that vibed international on so many other levels deserved a similarly epic arts scene. Hickey was an emissary from that larger world, his presence reassuring us that there really was some there here.

Well, as we now know, the scene stubbornly failed to become Soho Jr, yet was very often cool nonetheless. In the rooms of my home, where I’m writing this, the walls are full of art, all but a few pieces by local or once-local artists, few if any of whom would be considered blue-chip by a New York gallerist. Las Vegas appears overtly in some pieces, lurks subtextually in others, and in a few cases is probably all in my head; each has done its part in helping resolve my ambivalence.

I’m obviously not a career-making collector, but I’ve helped a few artists make rent, and I like that. Indeed, what matters to me about these pieces is precisely that they are local. That’s a small but definite comfort in our homogenized, tribal, anxious world. Even if I had money, I’d still create this environment for myself — not because I lack ambition or sophisticated taste, though both are surely true, but because I value connection so much more.

BY THE WAY, when I wonder what it means to be a local artist, then or now, I don’t mean to propose a hard and inflexible demarcation; it’s more a smudge than a line. Las Vegas artists have certainly made their way into elite art spaces — Justin Favela’s gotta be racking up serious travel points shuttling between museums. There are Las Vegas writers who publish nationally, architects designing beyond city limits, musicians and theater people known in the big culture centers. Of course there are.

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But many more have to work out some accommodation with a career at this level. I know I have. Many years ago, after I wrote a few pieces for big magazines, New York beckoned: a dream job offer. When it ultimately didn’t work out, my friends assured me I’d get another chance. I didn’t. Instead of fretting about it the way I did, maybe I should’ve downloaded some perspective from Jerry Misko.

“I don’t have any qualms calling myself a Las Vegas artist,” says the Las Vegas artist. Good thing; the city is inescapable in his work, which frequently employs closely cropped elements of local signage to toy with the city’s mythology. “I paint what I paint because I love it. I love Las Vegas like Monet loves his water lilies.” If that limits his access to the art world’s blue-chip skyboxes, he’s made his peace with that. “I want to make a living being an artist,” he says. “When I’m out in the world, being ‘Jerry the artist’ always felt true. So, I made decisions based on being true to myself, whether I made two grand a year or 200 grand a year.”

Las Vegas figures more obliquely in the work of painter and sculptor Chase R. McCurdy. He’s not interested in the visual semiotics of the Strip, the lore of Sin City; he doesn’t do spectacle. Nonetheless, he says, “If we’re sincere in our practice, who we are, where we are, when we are, it’s gonna come through somehow.” More importantly, he grounds his practice in West Las Vegas, where he has deep family roots and where the Black community nourishes his art. (See his Living Black Pillars in the Westside’s Legacy Park.) “For me it’s been very much about what I can bring to the community I identify with and care most about. I’m choosing to practice in a certain kind of way knowing there’s a good chance that I’ll never reach a certain kind of notoriety in the United States in the state that it’s in. I don’t care. I have to go with what is right for me.”

BACK TO HICKEY for a minute. The thing about that “local artist” quote is to not take it at face value. Like many people who exist at that larger-than-life pitch, he could amp up his rhetoric to own the moment, his words sometimes too spontaneous to represent his “capital-B beliefs,” as Hickey scholar Daniel Oppenheimer puts it. And in fairness to Dave — I’m switching to his first name for this part — his barbs, rendered in cold print, sound meaner than they usually did in real life, where they mostly seemed like an invitation to a genial sparring match. And for someone who didn’t suffer fools gladly, he treated me pretty well. Many others would say the same — including a fair number of current or onetime local artists, some of whom he exhibited in a show he put together, Las Vegas Diaspora: The Emergence of Contemporary Art from the Neon Homeland.

When I put the question of locality to Oppenheimer, author of Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art, he referred me to Dave’s catalog essay for Beau Monde, a 2001 exhibit he curated in Santa Fe. Once you chip away the arty jargon, it’s a celebration of cosmopolitanism — a bright, transnational spirit kept lively and convivial by constant up-fusions of the best regional and local influences. So, at some level he did give a shit, and, whatever your impression of Dave, I capital-B believe the rest of us should, too.

Scott Dickensheets is a Las Vegas writer and editor whose trenchant observations about local culture have graced the pages of publications nationwide.