Walking through the halls of second floor Neuberger Hall, one is surrounded by students’ paintings of naked female and male models. The art department is no stranger to nudity, recognizing the naked human form as a valuable instrument for teaching painting and drawing skills.
However, during the gallery exhibit “Of Gods and Monsters,” displayed April 22 through May 3, the doors to Gallery 299 were locked and accessed by appointment only at the request of the art department. The decision to differentiate between the paintings of naked models on the walls and what was behind those locked doors caused many students and faculty to become upset.
On the Monday one week before the gallery opening, Carl Analah, MFA graduate student and curator of the show, hung the artwork for the show in Gallery 299. The next day, even before the doors were opened for public viewing, Analah was contacted by Michi Kosuge, chair of the art department, notifying him of a complaint made about the show.
The complaint was made to Michi about the works painted by Suzanne Shifflett. The artworks in question are four 8-by-12-inch meticulously rendered oil paintings depicting penises. One painting includes scissors placed at the shaft, and another shows a penis between a woman’s breasts.
“A couple of students came to me and raised my attention by their responses to the work,” Kosuge said. “As department chair I was very cautious. We are a public school in public view and our job is not necessarily to raise controversy.”
Kosuge met with Analah with an ultimatum that he either remove the work in question or make accommodations to limit access to the gallery. Analah, wishing to keep the show intact, suggested that the gallery be open by appointment only.
Kosuge enthusiastically accepted Analah’s proposal, hoping to reach a balance between caution and artistic freedom of statement. “We both had great arguments that the other could empathize with, so rather than continuing to argue, we compromised,” Analah said.
Analah doesn’t shy away from calling Shifflett’s pieces “pornography,” stating that in fact, that was the artist’s intent. He also makes no hesitation in labeling the decision to limit public access to the gallery as “censorship.”
“I wasn’t surprised to hear that someone had complained about the show,” Analah said. “I specifically chose the artists and works I did because they represent work that is distinctively different from that of what is normally seen in the art world today; and yes, it had the potential to be offensive to some.”
“I think what may have been unsettling for people about Suzanne Shifflett’s work was that someone spent so much time studying penises,” Analah said. “They weren’t loosely painted exercises, like those in the hallway. She paid a lot of attention to the details.”
While a couple of students complained about Shifflett’s work; many more students and faculty were upset by the doors being locked. “I easily spoke with two dozen irate people, who were upset with the art department’s decision to mandate what was acceptable,” Analah said.
“I was pissed off, and I was really frustrated,” Sara Dochow, basic design teacher at PSU said. “I feel like we need to get beyond this sticking place of what’s offensive and what isn’t. People should view art they don’t like in an educated manner. I think it’s part of an art department’s role to educate people on how to constructively process their reactions to art.”
After one week of appointment only viewing of the gallery Analah suggested to Michi that the gallery be open to the public with a warning sign stating, “This show is for mature audiences only.” Kosuge agreed, asking that one of the two doors be kept closed.
This decision came as a relief to the five other artists whose work was displayed in the show and was also being censored. After opening the doors for public viewing the art department did not receive any more complaints about the content of the artwork.
The final page of the artists’ comments book displayed the polarity of ideas people can bring to and take from art exhibits. “Your (sic) a bunch of PORN freaks. Get a job/and some skills,” wrote an anonymous visitor to the show.
Mark Wooley, of Mark Wooley Gallery responded by writing, “Re: uppermost comment on this page – Thank GOD for ‘artist/porn freaks!!!'”