Friday, Sept. 28, 2007 | 7:28 a.m.
When art critic Dave Hickey arrived in Las Vegas in 1990 to teach at UNLV, the arts world took note. His group of adventurous students threw themselves into the loose and visually explosive culture of Las Vegas. They drank, gambled, discussed theory, worked hard, then launched successful careers.
The program was discussed in high academic circles, becoming almost legendary.
Las Vegas, of course, was the last to know.
The Las Vegas Art Museum makes an effort to put what happened under Hickey's tutelage into perspective with "Las Vegas Diaspora: The Emergence of Contemporary Art from the Neon Homeland," which opens Sunday.
Amid the show's vibrant abstracts and urban masterpieces is a digital photo of the Rev. Ethan Acres raising the spirit of Hickey's beagle , Ralph. Angelic, spry and heaven-bound, the animal is the artist Acres' response to the angst of dog-sitting the professor's pet.
Acres, currently in Alabama, recalls the epiphany that brought him to Las Vegas. He was working at a carburetor shop in Austin, Texas, and looking to start a ministry when he attended a lecture by Hickey. Acres already had a bachelor's degree in fine arts but felt disconnected from the egos and personalities of the contemporary art scene. Hickey's lecture transformed him.
"Dave gets up, he's wearing a Las Vegas Caesars Palace jacket and holding this 7-Eleven coffee cup," Acres says. "The first thing he does is he spills his coffee. There was some giggling. But by the end of the lecture, no one could say a word. Everyone just left in silence and for months after, all everybody could talk about was Dave Hickey. Dave Hickey. Dave Hickey."
"It was sort of this impassioned plea for something new," says Acres, laughing and crying. "It touched a lot of people. He talked about this return to a love of beauty - something more eloquent in art, this Jungian idea of letting go of ego. And at that time, art was extremely egotistical. It wasn't only what he said, but the way he said it. There was this all-inclusiveness. And it was sort of off-putting to see this guy speak so eloquently and have this crazy Las Vegas persona."
Soon Acres and his wife left for Las Vegas. They lived for two weeks in a KOA campground until they made enough money to get an apartment.
The Southern Baptist from Alabama was a natural fit for the program. He wasn't of the Protestant, East Coast, sheltered, middle-class , overly theoretical , by-the-book world. Nor were the other students, an international group from mostly urban but varied backgrounds.
"We were kind of outsiders and we suddenly found ourselves in a situation where people were coming from all over the world discussing art," he said by telephone from Alabama , where he's working on a documentary film. "It was sort of a magical time."
It was also noteworthy. Hickey's rants about academic art programs and out-of-touch professors had circulated in the art world. He'd written for several national publications and was a revered critic. T hat he was living in Las Vegas, a pariah of high society, enhanced the scuttlebutt.
In class he talked theory, but also focused on the social world of art, the business of the art world, its constant flow and movements that were over by the time they were written down.
He gave freedom to his students and cared only that the art looked good. He discussed professionalism, hard work and equanimity, told them not to go barefoot to their openings, to write thank you notes, follow their instincts and not censor themselves.
And then it was over. University politics came into play, and Hickey left. His students pursued art careers. The famous blip in UNLV's art department was gone.
"Las Vegas Diaspora," which runs through Dec. 30, features works by 26 artists who studied with Hickey from 1990 to 2001.
It's a reunion for former students, who se works are shown in reputable galleries and museums.
For the art museum, the exhibit is a chance to highlight a Las Vegas art movement. Hickey gets his chance to show what works.
"What I wanted to prove is that intellectual capital is real capital," he says while sitting outside the museum on Sahara Avenue where his wife, Libby Lumpkin, is executive director. "It pays off. That's why I'm doing this. If you take it seriously, people take it seriously. This is what the real thing looks like."
Las Vegas emanates from James Hough's "How Is My Baby So Far Away?" a commentary on the war that includes neon graffiti; Tommy Burke's op artesque "Like a Heat Wave"; and the saturated colors that pop out of Tim Bavington's 7 - feet - by -24 - feet "Step (In) Out," set aglow by the neon green wall behind it.
Gajin Fujita's "Ride or Die," on loan from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo., combines elaborate and traditional Japanese art with graffiti. James Gobel's "Ridicule Is Nothing to Be Scared Of," a beautiful spectacle created from felt yarn and acrylic on canvas, pays homage to "bears" (hairy, large gay men).
"You see Vegas in the color," Hickey says. "If you're in the middle of a wheat field in Iowa, can you paint that Tim Bavington painting? I don't think so. It's one of the things art does for a city. You get to see what comes out of talented people when the city goes in."
Hickey takes some credit for what transpired, but mostly gives it to the students and to the "vast visual resource" of Las Vegas, where they sought adventure and freedom from rules and hierarchy.
"The idea of being able to continuously reinvent yourself, let go of your past completely and walk forward, that's Vegas," Acres says. "That's biblical. People say it's about greed and commerce. I think it's more than that. Vegas is a great reflection of a human spirit to look into a void and create something. It's an incredibly important place for an artist."
Hickey touts the city's inclusivity and freedom: "The art world today in New York isn't quite as permissive as in the day when I went up there, you know, the Factory. Now it's much more corporate. The virtue of Vegas is that it has very soft class barriers. There is no established white Protestant overclass here. There are a bunch of Jews, Catholics and Mormons. If you avoid the Mormons, you can do what you want."
And they did. They gambled, drank and soaked in all Las Vegas had to offer, then worked, worked and worked some more in the studio.
Hickey had a natural affinity for their sense of adventure and was there to talk straight on his views of academia, admitting even in his "Diaspora" essay that his personal agenda "was to protect young artists from the perils of academia."
But often he overlooked the intellectual merit of their works.
When Yek, one of the more prominent students, who goes by only that name, graduated and had a show at Amerenger & Yohe Fine Art, Hickey says, "I looked around and realized I hadn't given a (expletive) thought to their intellectual approach. I didn't think about them at all. I do art. I don't do psychotherapy."
When asked if he was sad about not teaching art, Hickey, who now teaches writing at UNLV, says abruptly, "Damn right. At this time in my life, it is what I was born to do."