Douglas McCulloh's silver gelatin print Square: ZZ56 Date: 7.24.94 Time Elapsed: 5:26 Mileage: 157.7 shows a crisp bus stop. On the bus bench is one of those omnipresent LA sex rags, artfully opened to a page reading, "Fuck Hot Slit."
Square was part of "Chance Encounters," McCulloh's examination of life on the street. The mapmaking company Thomas Bros. was planning to fund "Chance Encounters" until a company official saw Square. He called McCulloh and, McCulloh says, threatened to cut off funding.
In a statement accompanying the work's appearance in Laguna Beach's BC Space Gallery, McCulloh writes, "My response to this strange, censorial sideswipe was a visceral, sickening shock. My goal with the 'Chance Encounters' project is to merely show in an unflinching way what is there. I did not create the pornography on the bus bench; I merely reported that it was there. I felt blindsided. Not only were there parties who refused to look at the reality I reported with my camera, but they had some degree of control over my ability to report."
Poor McCulloh—an artist who doesn't recognize performance art when he sees it. He was undoubtedly an unwitting participant in a Thomas Bros. performance-art piece (those scamps!), a piece intended to provoke artists of a sensitive nature.
And it worked! McCulloh felt everything—felt "sickening shock" in his viscera, felt "blindsided" in his side, felt everything that great art might help us feel! He was undoubtedly more shocked by the "censorial sideswipe" than the Thomas Bros. official was by the words "Fuck Hot Slit." If great art is about evoking powerful feelings, Thomas Bros. should bail on cartography and start hitting up major corporations for performance-art grants.
McCulloh's Square is part of "Banned and Barred," BC Space Gallery's gorgeous exhibit of works too strong for those who had originally agreed to exhibit them. Most of the "censorship" in "Banned and Barred" was galleries and museums simply deciding not to include certain works. In other words, they were being selective, which is a legitimate function of a curator. But there are some great stories here. (Please note: even if Square was censorially sideswiped, McCulloh was not banned, barred or censored; Thomas Bros. ultimately donated $30,000 in cash and services to his project.)
Among those truly censored, consider Mel Roberts. His 1969 photo Rich Johnson & Sam Evans, North Hollywood is a gorgeous, saturated-color shot of two nekkid guys hanging—and I mean hanging—by the pool. Hairy balls can be seen dangling pertly between the legs of one of the men; apparently even gay men didn't trim in the '60s. It's a Hockney made flesh. Of course, because it also depicts two men I assume are fags—and a hairy scrote—the LAPD raided Roberts' home in the late '70s, seizing and damaging negatives, photographic equipment and customer mailing lists. According to BC Space, Roberts ceased his professional photo career soon afterward.
James Lerager's critique of nuclear energy and weapons, Nuclear History—Nuclear Destiny, is another prime example of censorship. The exhibit, based on his books and research, was supposed to show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. But at the same time, a scholarly criticism of the decision to bomb Hiroshima was to go up at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Newt Gingrich and a bunch of damn vets groups went ballistic; the Smithsonian truncated its exhibit, leaving out all criticisms of nuclear war and featuring the bomb-dropping Enola Gay in all its glory. Terrified by the capitulation of the queen of American museums, the Walker canceled Lerager's entire exhibit. Was Nuclear History—Nuclear Destiny kiddie porn? Did it suggest you ought to fuck hot slit? Absolutely not. What it did was piss off a select few members of the Greatest Generation and Newtie by suggesting that nuclear war is bad for children and other living things.
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But don't let the abstract theme of censorship overshadow the real beauty of these works. Jock Sturges' catalog of pretty children in the nude has netted him a few legal actions; here we get his lovely remake of Boticelli's Venus (this would apparently be when Venus was a kid) and his less-lovely shot of an uncircumcised lad. I'm not appalled by the naked boy, mind you, just the uncut male member. But however much I disagree with a surplus of foreskin, I will defend to the death your right to see it.
Best of all the artists in the show may be Robin Rosenzweig. Please consider the three nude young girls in the context of her original exhibit, where they were surrounded by identical groupings of women of all ages. That juxtaposition of maids and crones was touching and true.
Note to McCulloh: Would you please have Thomas Bros. call me? For $30K they can censor me all night long.
"Banned and Barred" at BC Space Gallery, 235 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-1880. Through Sept. 7. Open Tues.-Fri., 1-5:30 p.m. Free.