Explicit ‘XX XY’ works put off some viewers
By Marcy Stamper
A dozen artists and supporters of the arts demonstrated in front of Confluence Gallery to show their support for the gallery — but also to head off any steps by the gallery board to limit the independence of curators.
What organizers described as a friendly demonstration grew out of discussions — some supportive, some critical — of the gallery’s current exhibit, “XX XY,” which explores gender, bodies, changing sex roles, and whatever that combination of letters inspired in artists.
The demonstrators rallied after hearing that several patrons had been put off by some art in the exhibit and had asked to have it removed, said Matt Armbrust, one of the show’s four curators. He was especially concerned that the board might be contemplating oversight of the show committee, which has always planned and curated shows with complete autonomy.
“The explicit nature of the show was intentional,” said Joanne Marracci, another curator. She said they wanted to display interesting art that would be talked about.
The art has indeed spurred conversation, including a few complaints about sculptures of torsos and heads by Brian Kooser, an artist from Ellensburg. The oversized ceramic sculptures show modifications to faces, breasts and genitals, which are pulled back with clips, sutured and otherwise distorted.
In one of the most provocative sculptures, “VGR 50,” Kooser created a gray-blue torso with an elongated penis clamped in a metal apparatus.
Mary Lou McCollum, chair of Confluence’s board, said she had received “a few” complaints about Kooser’s art, as well as a compliment from someone who thought the art had inspired a good discussion.
The comments spurred an informal conversation among a board member and the curators about whether to remove the art, according to Salyna Gracie, Confluence’s executive director.
Freedom of expression
The demonstrators raised the specter — and the slippery slope — of censorship. “How and where do you draw the line of what gets in or not?” asked Christiana Heinemann. “I’m the viewer; I decide. The importance is freedom of expression.”
“Good art is dangerous art. It takes courage to make dangerous art, especially in a small town,” said Patrick McGann, a writer who joined the demonstrators. “I’m really proud of the gallery for putting on this show,” he said.
“The art is going to stay here. It was never being pushed out the door,” said Gracie after the demonstration. “The discussion touched some buttons, but it was only a discussion. It’s exactly what we hoped for from the exhibit — to touch off some discussions.”
Gracie has had some of her own discussions with visitors to the gallery, as she does during all their exhibits. “People started out disturbed, but left thinking they had good stuff to think about,” she said, particularly after she shared what Kooser had told her about his art. He said he was interested in looking at what we do in this society to prolong youth and avoid dealing with aging, said Gracie.
One of the things that has made America a great country is that there has been no censorship, said demonstrator and historian Bill Hottell.
“People see far worse stuff on TV every day — that’s never censored,” said Mare Nemeth, an artist with two pieces in the show.
For “XX XY,” the curators issued a call for submissions, which attracted local artists as well as many artists new to the area, including several from outside the state. Curators typically jury the entries and choose what to exhibit.
Gracie and the curators had discussed posting a warning sign about Kooser’s art, but decided against it. “I personally felt we shouldn’t apologize for any art on display,” said Gracie. They elected to display Kooser’s art behind a scrim to create an intimate area for viewing it, she said.
Their publicity states that the show “is bound to bring some uncomfortable moments to the more sensitive viewer.”
Role of the board
The volunteer board is responsible for fiscal management of the gallery and the building, which Confluence owns; for hiring staff; and for setting policies, said Gracie. Based on their by-laws and the responsibilities of board members, they are also responsive to the community and to artists, to put forth shows that elicit thought and comment, said McCollum.
Confluence relies on many volunteer committees in addition to the board. The show committee plans seven exhibits a year, and curators usually come from the committee. There are currently three board members on the committee, said Gracie.
The board has its monthly meeting on Thursday (March 26). They will talk about the current show as well as the concerns of the artists and others who were demonstrating, said McCollum.