Friday, October 1, 2010

Sense and Censorability

Sense and Censorability

By Tom Wachunas

“Censorship is advertising paid by the government.” – Federico Fellini –

“Censorship is the height of vanity.” - Martha Graham –

“Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.” - Pablo Picasso –

There’s a wealth of implications and questions folded into that last quote. On one level, the artist is promulgating censorship of art. On another, we’re confronted with the task of defining just who or what is innocent, chaste, and sufficiently prepared. And in this era of moral relativism and giddy tolerance for ideological pluralism – an era that many discern as “the last days” – the task itself seems to be a futile exercise. Lincoln had it right, even though he wasn’t talking about art: You can’t please all the people all the time.

And so it is to be expected that not everyone who sees “Uncensored,” the national juried exhibition currently on view at Anderson Creative, will be pleased. In fact I recommend that even the most free-thinking adults think twice before having “ignorant innocents” in tow – be they children or, for that matter, colleagues who are easily incited to fits of mortification and outrage over “objectionable” content, conceptual and otherwise.

The show is one project among several upcoming in Canton acknowledging National Anti-Censorship Month. Culled from more than 80 submissions from across the nation, there are works here by 25 artists, with a healthy dose of locals in the mix. The selected works – each with an accompanying artist’s statement – present an eclectic range of messages that embrace politics, war, religion, and sexuality. It’s a celebration of not-so-strange bedfellows, really, and somewhat to my surprise (relief?), on the whole rather tame compared to the “censorable” art that caused so much iconoclastic furor in the late 1980s. Even the uniformly gray gallery walls have a calming effect that sets off the work quite handsomely, and in the process, intended or not, act as a metaphor for the gray areas that surround what we might consider to be inflammatory or obscene. It’s often a very thin line between “good taste” and what tastes good.

Some of the artists here, according to their statements, have experienced censorship of their work directly, others indirectly, and still others have made works that knowingly deal with potentially “controversial” issues. It’s hard to take offense at the charmingly executed collage, incorporating very sketchy renderings of seven nude women, by Gail Wetherell-Sack, called “You Go, Girl!” Still, she explains that she was asked by a local presenter (who shall here remain nameless - I censor myself), mounting a First Friday display of her work, to not show any nudes, as Christians would be in attendance. Never mind that in these times, “Christian” as a term is, unfortunately, open to interpretation, as is “obscenity.” So I can well imagine the same presenters being utterly horrified by Kim Truesdale’s jarring but well-painted oil of a fully frontal, spread-legged nude “virgin,”- part of her exploration of Islamic promises to martyrs.

Elsewhere in matters of religion, “Religious Flight,” a mixed-media work by Laurie Fife Harbert, is a gripping admission of her stuggles to come to terms with her own spirituality amid societal promptings, pressures, and legalistic definitions. Gripping too, literally and metaphorically, is the painting “First Love” by Lisa Jackson Wood. It’s an unabashedly beautiful and honest testament of faith in and affection for Jesus, which is itself, ironically enough in our volatile era, an act of courage.

One question that comes to mind throughout this show is what we define as truly obscene in our culture. Vicki Boatright offers her angry but poignant “Government Whitewash,” an explosively tactile mixed media indictment of administration complacency and denial in the face of Katrina’s devastation. I’ve never seen a more emotionally potent and visceral piece by her –surely her best in this mode of working. Then there’s another kind of complacency and denial addressed in Shawn Wood’s photograph that speaks to the rising Neo-Nazi ideology in Europe (and here, for that matter), “History Repeats Itself.” It’s a close-cropped portrait of a Hitlerian face, his index finger drawn up to his pursed lips in a haunting shhhhh.

The small oil on mylar paintings by Jim Boden are reminiscent of the 1970s mangled Polaroid self-portraits of Lucas Samaras. Boden’s images of smeared, distorted anatomies have a deceivingly earthy beauty that belies their subject matter – government practices of war-time torture glossed over as “enhanced interrogation.” Don Parsisson’s “State of the (Dis)Union” is a pair of giant (9’ high) back-to-back chairs, curved to lean away from each other, painted Republican red and Democrat blue, each with an upside-down American flag attached. Distress signal indeed. Unreachable by us little folk, this is the social climate of our time: Would-be political leaders seated on their thrones, incapable of seeing eye-to-eye, spewing their venomous dogma into the wind.

Judi Krew’s engaging “Porcelain for the Paranoid” collage features a pristine white toilet against a cosmetic populace - a backdrop of faces with a vast diversity of pasted-on expressions. Her statement addresses a fascination with waste elimination. I’m reminded that when it comes down to determining what is most edifying about the art we digest, only time (sooner than later?) will tell whether or not we see the more excretory practices and expressions of our day for what they are. Then all will, as it were, come out fine in the end.

Photo: “No Art,” by June Godwit/Group Scud, New York City, circa 1987.

“Uncensored” at Anderson Creative, through October 31, Tuesdays- Saturdays 12-5,
331 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton.

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