Twelve years ago a young man called Raul Zambrano, who would later become a circuit judge in Flagler County for a few years, was at the center of a controversy involving a red devil and his penis. The artist Alberto Gomez had painted a piece called “Dreamer.” It showed a young boy daydreaming in a child-like setting, but with a red devil in the background, and the devil’s penis clearly exposed. The painting hung at the State Attorney’s Office in DeLand—until Zambrano, an assistant state attorney there, relayed complaints to county officials alleging that the painting was offensive. The Bible-thumping John Tanner headed the office at the time.
The painting was removed. A controversy erupted. The painting, after all, had been approved by the county’s own committee that regulates public art. It was eventually hung back, but in a less visible place. The DeLand controversy broke out not long after Renee Cox’s “Yo Mama’s Last Supper”—a fully naked female surrounded by 12 black apostles—so upset then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani (who did not make clear whether he was offended by the female Jesus or the blackness of the apostles) that he tried to have it removed from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Not much later, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft spent $8,000 in taxpayer dough to drape the breasts of Lady Justice at the Department of Justice.
Near and far, breasts, butts and penises rendered as art in every shape and medium have riled up politicians and patrons of the arts since Manet’s “Olympia” was ravished and reviled by critics and the public at the Paris Salon in 1865. Artists have willingly courted controversy. So have museums and galleries. It’s a wonder Palm Coast’s Hollingsworth Gallery, which prides itself on tonguing the cutting edge with every show, went this long without finding itself in the crosshairs of a sexually themed tiff.
Now it has, and in the most ironic of circumstances.
The show opening at Hollingsworth Saturday night is called “The Monster of Bigotry.” It’s also termed the First Schreiner Memorial Show, after the late Richard Schreiner, whose art rhymed with shock. The show is curated by JJ Graham, the gallery owner.
Even though Graham was short of works to hang or show, one work he initially accepted to include in the show—Constance Payne’s “Will You Take Me Seriously Now”—will not be shown. He rejected it after its creator turned down an offer to have it hung, but covered up.
The oil painting is of a woman who’s shorn her hair and her breasts, which lay at her feet, and strapped on what Graham calls “a giant dildo,” reddish pink. It’s not a realistic painting, nor was it intended as such. It combines a comical effect with a brutal suggestion that sums up Payne’s idea of a daily bigotry women face in the workplace.
“Basically if she just cuts off her breasts and she rips out her hair, and she has a giant cock, then she’ll be respected,” Payne says of the woman in her piece. “It’s a very good conversation piece, and I think it comes from a very strong standpoint from being a female in business on how hard that is. Not everybody is going to get it, but it’s not the point. The point is that there are people out there that know how I feel, and I think this self-expressive piece, it shows people who don’t get it right away a little bit of insight on what it’s like to be a female in business. If I was twice my age and a man, my life would be easier from a business person’s standpoint.”
Payne, 26, a child of single parenting, poverty, homelessness and abuse, is an artist who runs a non-profit in Ormond Beach for at-risk youths and young adults by way of art instruction, small-business and life-readiness coaching. She’s also a tattoo artist.
Payne and Graham had talked about her entering a work in the bigotry show two weeks ago when they were showing their works at a restaurant in Ormond Beach. They sealed the deal there. Payne got to work painting the piece. “Not all artwork is landscapes and waterfalls and flowers, you know?” she said, using words taken out of Graham’s mouth. “This is a very raw piece, and the very first thing that I thought of when he said the word bigotry, I thought of how that relates to me and how I’m going to express my personal feelings about bigotry. It is a bit gory, but it’s a very emotional piece.” She doesn’t claim it to be a masterpiece.
She paid the $35 entry fee and turned in the painting Friday, unquestionably late. She had not followed Graham’s rules of first previewing the piece on an invitation-only Facebook page, where he could evaluate it, nor had she respected the deadline, though she says that she “never actually received a deadline and it was a little confusing, there was kind of information all over the place” about when to submit.
And the guidelines had never mentioned children.
Graham is an obsessive curator: how he hangs a show is at times more impressive than what he paints. He doesn’t take the job lightly, and “balancing” a show, to him, is as much of a work of art as creating a painting. He was willing to cut Payne some slack, and told her that she could break rules as long as her work was interesting. That, it was. But it wasn’t enough.
Graham has never been squeamish about the art he shows. But “Will You Take Me Seriously Now” was too much for him. He was not thrilled about the painting’s technical quality. Or its “gore.” Or the fact that children could see it. “I am subject to my taste. I did not like the painting, pure and simple,” Graham said.
A short time after she turned in the piece, Graham called Payne and said he’d hang it, but either in a back room, or in the main gallery, with a drape over it.
Payne refused the deal, and took back the painting. “I didn’t know they were going to censor my painting,” she said. “I thought it was an art gallery. I didn’t know it was a day care center.” She disputes the notion that the work was rejected because it was late. “It definitely wasn’t an issue of timing because he accepted my piece and he accepted my $35 entry fee, so it wasn’t an issue of timing,” she said. “I just thought it was very ironic that a show about bigotry is censoring my self-expression on what bigotry is.”
Graham says Payne was as much a censor as he might have been by refusing his offer. “I did censor her work from children in the aspect that I think parents should be able to make the decision whether or not their child views that, and I can’t stand by the piece all night long,” Graham says.
Such matters have not been an issue before at Hollingsworth. Breasts, butts, fully frontal female nudity, even naked children, have been shown at the gallery, as has a great deal of violent or violently themed art, not least that of Schreiner, or Peter Cerreta’s demoniac send-ups of sexually explicit classics, including an “Olympia” rendered as a Muslim who might get stoned if she persists in her ways, or Jen Kaczmarek’s naked and bound woman, apparently murdered, in a forest clearing.
And Graham has no problem with a pair of Harry Messersmith mixed media works in the show that opened Saturday, and that can be interpreted as brutally as Payne’s. One is called “Knockers” (use your imagination) and another, which pre-empts the imagination, called “Pro Pell Her,” depicting a propeller sodomizing a woman’s ass.
“But it’s the absence of the gore that makes me contemplate that piece,” Graham says. “And I understand his statement. What he’s saying is that women are viewed for their parts, the sexuality, the sex trade, pornography. But that piece allows you to contemplate the space between those, and above them, in a very tasteful way. To me. Because every man that looks at women that’s not capable of judging them on their intellect or their persona are viewing them for their body parts.”
Graham’s is an oddly literalist definition of gore: he sees it in Payne’s painting because breasts are visibly severed and blood spatters appear. But a propeller in a woman’s ass can be seen by definition as a goring image, and not just because of the discomforting verbal pun: a propeller sodomizing a woman is unquestionably goring her, a notion arguably as violent, if not more so, than the blood-spattered metaphor of Payne’s painting.
Payne is surprised by Graham’s interpretation. “This painting was not meant to be realistic. It was meant to be symbolic, and a statement, and it was meant to be shocking,” she says. “A lot of art galleries also feature women’s breasts, and why is that considered art? But you throw a penis in there and now everybody is shocked and shaken.”
But Graham also received a piece by Cerreta that was disturbing, and accomplished—and that he didn’t accept. It didn’t fit in the show. It was not a matter of censorship, he says. It was a matter of art. “And yes I have broken my rules before but it was because there was a sense of serendipity and that piece just tended to fit right where it came in, and that did not happen this time,” Graham said.
There was also the matter of Payne’s excitement about being turned down, Graham said. Payne, he said, made herself a martyr at his expense. “It just seems to me like she was really happy for me to reject the piece, and she’s all just bubbly about it on Facebook,” he said. “She can promote herself. That’s great. I thinks she’s already got enough attention for the piece at my expense. I don’t know why I have to give her a viewing and make it special.”
Payne had suggested a special viewing of the work on a subsequent Saturday, giving patrons a chance to judge for themselves. But she dismisses Graham’s claim that she was thriving on the controversy, or that she had sought it out. “I’m a busy person. Not only am I an artist and an entrepreneur but I also help my husband in his glass business,” she says. “Any artist who is confronted with the fact that their work is going to have to be censored, especially for the subject matter that this show was about, would be equally as offended. I mean, I’m cool with JJ. We’re friends. So I don’t feel like my decision to remove my painting reflects on his decision-making on what he stands by. We’re just on two very different sides of the spectrum on it.”
Payne was late bringing her work, but just as clearly, Graham was equally late in deciding that to fill out the walls, he’d have to bring in children’s work—a surprising judgment call, considering the theme of the show and the number of other works that challenge the boundary between shock and taste. But Graham, who relies to some extent on his children’s art classes to pay the bills, has been working with local government to expand the presence of children’s art in public spaces, making him perhaps more careful about what he shows in his galleries.
The end result for “The Monster of Bigotry” is a show that lacks a certain unity, or much monstrosity to match the title. It’s a show in three parts: the works themed around bigotry. Schriner’s works, most of them recycled. And children’s work. Individual walls have a sense of narrative. The show as a whole does not. It leaves Messersmith’s “Knockers” and “Pro Pell Her” as the unintended focal point, the way Graham feared the dildo in Payne’s painting would have been. That, and an arresting but also oddly placed, enormous painting by Brian Buck called “Defiant,” of an Arab woman in an aggressive “Tank Man”-like stance against a colossal tank, which looks suspiciously American.
Graham, worn out as always on the approach of a show’s opening Saturday afternoon, wasn’t reveling in his decision to exclude “Will You Take Me Seriously Now.” He just hopes it’s the right one.
“It’s very hard to make that decision. It’s not easy,” he says. “It almost makes me want to shut the doors and go back to painting on my own. I made just as much money when I painted in my garage, or just teaching kids and not have to worry about herding cats. Dealing with artists is like herding cats. It really is.”
“Monster of Bigotry” Opened Saturday, Aug. 10, at the Hollingsworth Gallery, at City Marketplace, and runs through the end of the month. Reach the Gallery at 386/871-9146 or visit its website.