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Fizzy, fuzzy art

Hang around USF's "Ultralounge" and you'll get the buzz on art that's trying to redefine itself.

Dave Hickey came to town and turned USF's Contemporary Art Museum inside out.

It was in the name of art, of course, or in this case, an art show called "Ultralounge."

What Hickey, a Las Vegas culture critic, did was to reverse the conventional museum in which dark art contrasts with white walls. Here, the walls are dark; the art is light and bright.

You know there's a difference even before you pass through the revolving door at the entry. Above it is the title of the show as if it belongs there permanently; to either side is a colorful, wavy polymer graphic covering the glass doors. It is the work of Jim Isermann, a Los Angeles-based artist who presents design as fine art.

The galleries simulate a cocktail lounge environment, dark, social and seductive, glitzy and plastic in a '70s kind of way. Performances have been scheduled for several nights (if you can't make them, pick them up on the Web site).

That's the concept Hickey wanted, to remove art from the "white cube," or traditional museum environment _ not that USF's Contemporary Art Museum's triangular galleries ever fit that description anyway.

On view are works by a dozen artists, mostly young, all but one from Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Originally assembled for the Nevada Institute for Contemporary Art a year ago, the exhibit has also appeared in a smaller version in Houston. USF's Contemporary Art Museum got the full treatment of 36 works.

Okay, we can forgo the museum environment; it is, after all, an 18th century convention. Maybe we ought to rearrange our art house stereotypes.

But why a cocktail lounge? As Hickey explains in his catalog essay, "the work in this exhibition . . . conceives the domain of art as an optimum social environment. . . . In the desert Southwest, where these artists live and work, that place is a lounge _ but not just any lounge, an ultralounge that never closes."

The "lounge" does not actually exist; there are no vinyl-covered stools against a bar with fluorescent lights to cross the line to functionality. It is social space in the context of art, in a gallery, referencing 1960s and '70s culture in a post-hip-hop way.

It continues the dialogue about "high art" (accepted by critics) and "low art" (understood by and popular with the masses). Hickey seeks to bring the two together into a "high popular art."

And what about the individual artworks? Do they matter?

Carrying forward the influence of Californians Ed Ruscha, Barbara Kruger, Lari Pittman and others, these artists have also gleaned inspiration from the decorative art of the 1960s through 1980s. Cynthia Chan fashions Peter Maxlike designs on odd-shaped canvases; Jane Callister and Christine Siemens work with vinyl and latex surfaces; Mary Warner paints perfect flowers on (yikes) black velvet.

Phil Argent's luscious Dream Car 5, specked with mica, refers to two kinds of speed. It's one of the few works that can hold up under a little scrutiny.

If the show has a keynote artwork, it is Jennifer Steinkamp's untitled video projection, encouraging viewers to perform or interact as their shadows fall on the screen.

Tim Bavington gives hard-edge stripes a new take by painting them with an airbrush. Wayne Littlejohn assembles shells and marbles into conglomerates that look like Disney props. An artist who goes by the name "Yek" offers up some minimalism: three canvases of solid gradated color with glow-in-the-dark squiggles. The canvases curve forward at each corner. Pretty, but quickly boring.

Jack Hallberg's psychedelic "posters" glow in the dark and have titles like Buzz and Fizz. His catalog quote: "Come on! Would the guy who makes these paintings make a statement?"

The fact that he is making it in the art world is a statement in itself. Almost all the works in this show are intrinsically trivial. But because they are attracting notice, we need to know they are happening, and this show is a chance to immerse ourselves in them.

Hickey's whole giddy approach works, not because it is trying to move popular art up a notch, but because it so well reflects the L.A.-Vegas cultural scene.

At a glance

WHAT: Ultralounge: The Return of Social Space (with Cocktails)

WHERE: University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum (USF CAM), W Holly Drive, University of South Florida, Tampa. Stop at campus information center for parking permit

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday through March 3

COST: Free; parking $2

CATALOG: $15 plus tax

INFORMATION: (813) 974-2849 (recording); Web site

RELATED EVENTS: 7 to 11 p.m. Feb. 10 and 24: Music Mix. Matt Mikas & Erik Donaldson mix a selection of recorded music and live entertainment, free at the museum and broadcast live from the Web site. Free.