The art of payback

An art department insider mocks a celebrated outsider


Mostly, old university politics linger as snippy gossip among tenured professors. But the discord that shook the UNLV art department in the 1990s, during Dave Hickey’s professorship, was so vile that remaining faculty would rather see it fade away, forgotten.

As Hickey has very publicly spewed his contempt for the department and its faculty on radio, in lectures and in print (although he’s also attacked the idea of university art programs in general), UNLV’s response has been to not respond.

But in Drunk, a recently published, hardbound comic book of tales by mostly local artists, Mark Burns, the chair of UNLV’s art department, bites back.

Burns says he’s lampooning a “whole lot of things, including the direction the program took away from representational art,” something he says reflects art programs across the country.

But Hickey, art critic and former MacArthur Fellow, who first saw Burns’ cartoon last week when a friend e-mailed it to him, doesn’t see it that way: “It was insulting. I forwarded it to the president of the university. They should just leave me alone. They have control of the department. They can do what they want to. I’m over at the English department, and I’m doing okay.”

The tit for tat could go on:

Burns: “He certainly spent many years attacking us. When you are as big as you suppose you are, this is bound to happen, you set yourself up to be satirized.”

Hickey: “I don’t think I’ve dissed them more than anyone else has.”

Burns: “I did it in the spirit of fun. There was no malice intended. I even lampooned myself.”

Hickey: “It’s kind of corny. Don’t people do cocaine these days?”

But the bigger story might be that the cartoon, titled “Modern Art Talent Test,” seems to be screaming something along the lines of Get your high-minded, contemporary, successful, international art-world ass out of our cowboy town. We like the way things are.

1. Mark Burns, chair of UNLV art department. The crown references his personal e-mail nickname: King Kitsch.

2. Possible reference to Tim Bavington, who came to Las Vegas to study with Hickey, earned his MFA and is represented by Mark Moore Gallery in Los Angeles and Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. The Museum of Modern Art has a Bavington in its collection.

3. Possible reference to Jack Hallberg, who studied with Hickey and taught at UNLV.

4. Possible reference to the artist Yek, who studied with Hickey and is now represented by galleries such as Ameringer McEnery Yohe, and James Kelly Contemporary.

5. Could refer to Hickey’s belief that artists should approach their careers in a businesslike manner, as well as his lack of fashionable hostility toward the art market.

6. UNLV’s address, home to “Gibberish Art Instruction, Inc.”

7. Possible reference to Deep Design, the 1999 book by Hickey’s wife, Libby Lumpkin, in which she includes an essay on the history of the smiley face.

8. Looks an awful lot like Dave Hickey.

9. A possible reference to Hickey’s celebrated and recently reissued book The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, as well as his status as a noted defender of “beauty” as an element of contemporary art.

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Kristen Peterson

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