I BECAME AWARE OF Bruce Hainley's writing on art a little more than a decade ago, while I was in college. Amid the monotony of a magazine's review section, coming across his description of an exhibition by Ingrid Calame at Karyn Lovegrove's Los Angeles gallery was like encountering a snake in a field. The review's venom was poisonous and worked quickly: "The gimmick behind the project ... was flimsy enough to begin with, and by now it's just fatuous." On the explanation of her onomatopoeic titles: "Yeah, right." I was in Boston, hundreds of miles from an art-world center and frustrated by persistent critical obfuscation. The clarity of Hainley's indictment was thrilling.
Thereafter, on the lookout for this Los Angeles critic's byline, I learned quickly that the takedown was not his principal trade. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that in ensuing years I got to know Hainley a little; but more on this later.) Hainley's occasional lashings are needles meant to puncture consensus, to deflate an overinflated reputation, and their rarity adds to their power. The majority of his reviews and essays instead grapple with the work of complex and often misunderstood artists, whether young or established. In the tradition of the great poet-critics whose work he relishes, Hainley's mind follows his eyes. As he noted a decade ago, "I am a promiscuous looker. I will look at anything." And once he decides that he likes looking at something, he keeps looking: Many of the artists he wrote about in the late 1990s and early 2000s are the artists he is writing about, and talking with, today. This isn't slavish devotion to a particular style. There is little, beside Hainley's ardor, that unites pastoral painter Maureen Gallace, abstract sculptor Vincent Fecteau, conceptual provocateur Trisha Donnelly, and object philosopher Elaine Sturtevant. It's not what they make that appeals to him, but how they see. "I don't mean, Oh, every person sees the world in his or her own special way!" he states in an interview. "No. I mean that, for example, Vince is one of the most visually intelligent people I've ever been around: he notices forms that are almost always out of sync with what a dominant mode of seeing wishes to exist."
Despite his more than decade-long prominence in the Los Angeles art scene, there has been little occasion to think synoptically about Hainley's work. As an inveterate freelancer, his writing has been scattered across domestic and international art magazines, exhibition catalogues, and artist monographs. Thanks to writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, however, we now have a slim, engaging collection of Hainley's prose — and four of his poems to boot. Bruce Hainley is the fifth in Lehrer-Graiwer's occasional publication series, Pep Talk. Past editions have included anthologies devoted to the artists Dan Graham and Stephen Kaltenbach as well as a foldout poster featuring anaglyph images of Bruce Springsteen's crotch. (Really. 3-D glasses included.) Lehrer-Graiwer was once a student of Hainley's, and as a writer she shares several of his interests, among them a fascination with the tactile, anthropomorphic qualities of art objects and a frustration with the limitations of standard critical forms. Her editorial selections, which range from 1996 to 2010, emphasize these aspects of Hainley's corpus.
A transcribed conversation between them appears in the book, and one can cobble together something akin to a Hainley manifesto from his responses to her questions. Aim ...