Nude photos approved, then pulled from gallery

12/06/2007 3:13 AM

12/06/2007 8:34 AM

You walk into an art gallery or a museum. A painting, photograph, sculpture or other work might captivate you with vivid detail that reveals the subject's soul or inner conflict and the artist's talent.

Maybe it does nothing for you at all, and you move on to the next piece. Or maybe you flat out hate it.

We all have our preferences. I'll take a Charles M. Russell depiction of the Old West over a Monet water lilies painting pretty much seven days a week.

Other folks might like a Peter Max psychedelic over the "Mona Lisa" or a Betty Saletta bronze statue over Rodin's "The Thinker."

Consequently, artists in all disciplines understand their works won't appeal to everyone and sometimes might not appeal to anyone. It's always a matter of personal likes and tastes.

Sometimes, it's simply a question of whether a work is in good or bad taste. The management of downtown Modesto's Mistlin Gallery determined some photos by two local artists crossed that line and removed them last week from an ongoing show titled Figuratively Speaking.

The show focuses on art involving the human body. Many of the works involve nudity in mediums including oil, watercolor, photography, sculpture and other art forms.

The naked eye can have quite an imagination, particularly when it comes to a photo of a naked body.

Some will see it as art. Others will deem it offensive.

The artists, photographers David Schroeder and Lee Bailey, are upset -- not because someone didn't like their photos, but because they were approved for the show by a three-person "jury" and then removed by management after drawing complaints.

"When you put things up, you understand some people will like it and some don't," Schroeder said. "It was handled in a way that made me feel bad. I was insulted, embarrassed and, later, angry."

Photos attract attention

The photos were up for just more than a day, gallery director Gaye Wolf said.

A couple of visitors voiced objections to gallery staff members. Conversely, Wolf said, the photos also drew about a dozen teenage boys and a few transient-type men who hung around the gallery and in some cases, returned for a second gawk. (An optimist could argue the nude photography succeeded in introducing more people to the arts.)

Wolf admits the issue was handled poorly. But, she said, she and the gallery board made the decision because they felt the photos were inappropriate for children, since the gallery frequently offers art classes for them.

The Mistlin Gallery doesn't have a large advertising budget to promote its shows. Many visitors walk in off the street completely unaware of what's on display.

The Central California Art Association leases the gallery from Civic Partners, which leases the space from the city of Modesto and Stanislaus County. There is no written agreement restricting works that can be displayed, said Brad Hawn, who not only is the CCAA board president but also is an accomplished painter and a Modesto city councilman. He was in Europe when the issue surfaced, but said he backs Wolf's decision to pull the photos.

"There is an inherent responsibility that goes with (being in a publicly owned building)," Hawn said. "It does look like a city (event). The only thing I'm sorry about is that we should have caught it at the jury level."

To his recollection, art featuring nudity wasn't allowed when the association maintained its gallery in the basement of the McHenry Museum prior to the Mistlin Gallery's opening in 2003.

Wolf said she was out on bereavement leave when the photos were selected, and said the gallery didn't provide the jurors with enough guidance as to what should or should not be displayed.

The photos later deemed objectionable were in black and white and featured completely naked women. I thought they were done very artistically in terms of style, use of lighting, etc. If they were, indeed, pornographic -- "that certainly wasn't my intent," Schroeder said -- they were more like the early days of Playboy and by no means fodder for Hustler or one of the raunchier smut publications.

In one of the photos, the model's head was cropped out, thus emphasizing her breasts. Schroeder had five photos in the show, and the museum took down two of them. Bailey had four, and one of his pieces was removed. So the artists took the rest of their photos out in protest.

"(My display) was OK for the Art and Wine Festival," Bailey pointed out. "What bothered me is that it was juried. They had the right not to hang it, but once it was hung, they shouldn't have removed it."

Artist supports decision

Elizabeth Ingebretsen, an artist with works in the same show, supports Wolf's decision. She said one of Schroeder's pieces "is beautiful."

"The other is an objectification of women," Ingebretsen said. "If it had been a photo of male genitalia, how would the public have reacted to it, and how would the gallery have reacted to it?"

Her painting titled "Mind Chatter" also features a woman's breast prominently.

"I will happily take down my piece if it's deemed inappropriate for the gallery," she said.

Having seen the photos in question, would I want my 13-year-old daughter to walk into a public gallery and see them? Not without some serious discussion first. It's one of those times where you weigh art and the freedom of expression against selective parental responsibility.

Really, though, how many parents might object to a photo of a naked body displayed in a public place and yet would allow their kids to watch movies and TV shows containing violent scenes, fail to block cable channels that routinely show sexually explicit programs, or at least fail to monitor their kids' Internet access?

These photos wouldn't have caused any controversy in galleries in San Francisco or many other cities. Nor would they have generated a stir in a privately owned gallery here.

But this is the valley, which has a more conservative base. Parents routinely try to get certain books banned from the schools.

Hooters looks elsewhere

In 1994, some folks railed against Hooters -- a restaurant famous for its Buffalo wings and scantily clad waitresses (and not necessarily in that order) -- when it wanted to come to Modesto. The opposition caused the company to look elsewhere.

Last year, the county banned belly dancing exhibitions at the Stanislaus County Library in Salida.

Censorship in any form generally challenges the freedom of expression Americans know as a birthright. There are times, however, when common sense can negate the need for censorship.

The photographers could have submitted photos that were less explicit while maintaining their artistic qualities.

The gallery could have done a better job of monitoring what went into the show from the beginning. Or, once the photographs were on display, a simple sign on the door warning visitors of the content inside might have sufficed.

And guess what? Somebody still would have complained.

Because, to bastardize the famous Oscar Wilde line, strife imitates art.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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