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Dave Hickey makes you feel welcome in the art world with ‘Pirates and Farmers’

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Chuck Twardy

Four stars

Pirates and Farmers

A dozen years ago, when I started writing about art for Las Vegas Weekly, I called Dave Hickey for a quote. I found him playing video poker at the Double Down Saloon, and I gathered that sharing his thoughts did not get in the way of betting, holding and dealing.

Double-duty at the Double Down is what Hickey is all about. In his latest book of essays, Pirates and Farmers, he makes it clear, as he has most of his career as an art critic, that modern urban life can and should underpin aesthetic life. “I have never taken anything printed in a book to heart that was not somehow confirmed in my ordinary experience,” he asserts in 1997’s Air Guitar. “Nor have I had any experience of high art that was not somehow confirmed in my experience of ordinary culture.”

Through much of Pirates and Farmers, Hickey comes across as an irascible but amiable bar buddy, the kind you don’t mind indulging as he holds forth on topics he clearly knows more about than you do. And if at times your pal makes some wild associative leaps, well, you drain your beer and signal for another round.

I say this as a warning to those who might lose patience reading the introduction and the title essay that follows. Here, Hickey vaults over key points, leaving you to fill the cognitive gaps. I’m still not sure how he differentiates taste and desire, but I discerned that democracy and pirates are good and vitrines and farmers are not.

Pirates and farmers reduce to plucky rogues and puritan preservers, but beyond ideology—“Methodists and Marxists still agree on the primacy of the Word over the Flesh and the evanescence of earthly desire,” as Hickey puts it in “Coping with Paradise,” an appraisal of West Coast Minimalism, which he considers more about the experience of land and space than its severe East Coast counterpart.

Hickey is a joyful formalist for the same reasons most academic theorists are not. That context colors experience points others to concept and culture, but Hickey exults in the art object: “We stand before a work of art with no hope of understanding it and no choice but to try.” He stands before a Cezanne in Steve Wynn’s Mirage office with wife Libby Lumpkin, art historian Richard Schiff and golfer Nancy Lopez, amused by the occasion, and proclaims himself not at all envious of wealthy collectors. Elsewhere he finds 19th century landscape in the word paintings of Ed Ruscha, cosmopolitanism in mixed martial arts and Ghanaian movie poster paintings, and reason to resent fellow “new journalist” Hunter S. Thompson. Well, a little.

“[M]y optimal social situation is sitting in a room with a few people in casual attire, talking about something on the wall,” Hickey writes. At his best, he makes you welcome in this group.

For more by Chuck Twardy, visit chucktwardy.com.

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