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Banned in Eureka!

by   LINDA MITCHELLart by Jeremy Hara

NOW, I DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU, BUT WHENEVER I HEAR THE word "censorship" I get a mental image of a roaring Nazi bonfire, stoked with priceless works of art and first edition copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover. It's an ugly image, and anti-American as well, as far as I'm concerned, so you can imagine my horror when a letter came across my desk the other day suggesting that a wave of art censorship has been washing over the North Coast. The letter pointed out the removal of Chuck Bowden's drawing from the Redwood Art Association's (RAA) Fall Exhibit allegedly due to its political content; the rejection of a sculpture from the same show for its sexual content; and a recent notice sent to the Ink People from Mad River Hospital stating that art with religious, political or sexual content will not be accepted into its Alternative Gallery space.

[Untitled, by Jeremy Hara. Warning! This photo may not be suitable for viewers under the age of 13.]

This letter from a concerned citizen is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. The censorship issue has become a hotly debated topic in the local art community ever since the Associated Press picked up the RAA-Bowden story last month, and it seems like everywhere I go, someone wants to talk about it. People are worried.

I'd probably be a whole lot more concerned myself if I believed art censorship actually was an issue on the North Coast. The problem with the debate is that it generally begins with some variation of: "in addition to the censorship of the Bowden drawing," a thesis which quickly falls apart when you begin to question whether or not that piece was actually censored.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, I'll try to be brief: Artist Chuck Bowden entered a small pen and ink drawing in the RAA Fall Show, claiming on the entry form an insurance value of $35,000. The piece was accepted on a Saturday by the RAA's "entry day" committee; was awarded second place by an independent judge on Sunday, and was hung on the wall later that same day.

The next day someone on RAA's board checked with the insurance company to see if the unusually high value would pose a problem. They were told the artist would be expected to substantiate his claim (via sales records or a professional appraisal) if the drawing was damaged or stolen. Since Bowden couldn't provide any proof and chose not to lower the value, he was asked to remove the piece. He still received his prize money.

Oh, yeah. Did I mention that Bowden's drawing, The Tactics of Tyrants Are Always Transparent, was an anti-Bush piece accusing the president of masterminding the 9/11 attacks? Or that the owner of the business who put up the second place prize, a staunch Republican, took back his award money after some genius on the board came up with the brilliant idea of calling to give him a "heads up?" (As I mentioned, Bowden still got his award, but it came out of the RAA's kitty.)

Bowden was sure the business owner had somehow pressured the RAA into removing his drawing, the media picked up the story, and the rest, as they say, is history. And even though "Anti-Bush Drawing Banned in Eureka!" makes a much juicier headline than "Artist Overprices his Drawing," I'm afraid I'll have to go with the insurance explanation. Here's the thing: If the RAA had wanted to pull the piece because of its content, they would have done it openly. It says right on their entry form, "The RAA reserves the right to refuse work on the basis of content unsuitable for exhibition." Why in the world would they sneak around about it?

Which brings me to Jeremy Hara's sculpture, the piece that actually was censored out of the same RAA show on entry day. Board member Julia Bednar told me it was rejected because the subject matter -- a vagina -- "bordered on pornography."

I'm sure there are at least a few people out there saying "bordered?" right about now, but let's think about this for a minute. Hara contends that his Untitled, a vagina carved out of a pink bar of Caress soap (you gotta love it), is about the juxtaposition of what we perceive as "dirty" with what we perceive as "clean." Undoubtedly inspired by conceptual artist Thomas Friedman's use of soap and pubic hair as a medium, Hara's sculpture exhibits a witty and sophisticated thought process.

Of course, without the artist there to explain his concept, some people might view the sculpture as -- well, just a vagina. We can probably forgive the entry day committee for mistaking it as porn. Hara says he knew he was "pushing the boundaries," and had another piece ready to substitute in case the Caress bar was turned away. The substituted piece won an award and Hara is currently exhibiting his censored sculpture in the Empire Squared show at the Ink People Gallery (through January) along with his rejection slip.

And speaking of the Ink People, how about that Mad River Hospital "incident"? The hospital has provided one of the Ink People's "Alternative Gallery" spaces for years, and, frankly, I'm surprised it's just now getting around to putting its preference for non-controversial work in writing. When you stop and think about it, can you really blame a hospital for wanting to hang art that isn't likely to annoy anyone? People who go to hospitals are generally either a) sick, b) taking care of people who are sick, or c) visiting people who are sick. Maybe there are more appropriate venues for provocative art.

As a matter of fact, my mom died of cancer at Mad River Hospital a few years ago, and anyone who's been through the experience can tell you it's no day at the ballpark. I spent a lot of time wandering the hospital corridors, feeling lousy. At the time, Geta Hershberger's watercolor paintings of her garden were hanging on the walls and looking at them each day gave me a little comfort. In those circumstances, I would much rather have been contemplating the way Geta turns pigment and water into light than worrying about whether or not the 9/11 attacks were even more horrific than anybody imagined.

If you're not happy about what's being censored in our community, get involved, ask questions, make your voice heard. But while it's crucial for us as artists and citizens to be vigilant against real attempts to suppress our ideas and speech, it's also important not to resort to knee-jerk responses when dealing with real life situations regarding the art in our own community.

Linda Mitchell can be reached via




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