The Gilded Splinters series was produced over the course of 18 months and began with the Conglomerate set of works. I explored new techniques and methods such as gilding, 3D printing and hydrodipping with the Conglomerates. Their small size allowed for exploration in incorporating these new elements with my oil painting practice. The combination of both old and new materials parallel the narratives of the larger works within the series as the themes presented are historic yet still contemporary.
As I finalized the Conglomerate works, I felt confident that I could use the new materials within larger, more time intensive pieces in order to tell a story. The majority of my paintings link together to do this, while still having the ability to function as standalone pieces that provide impact with both color, paint handling, and subject matter. Work began on Collateral Damage and Gilded Splinters (Platoon) as I was winding up the Conglomerate works. I thought of the two pieces as a set: with each painted composition portraying a moment of quiet in an otherwise chaotic battle scene. The sculptures accompanying both works display the action and consequences of the painted images. The painted portion of Gilded Splinters (Platoon), the title piece of the exhibit, displays the build up to the final fight with layers of figures sneaking up on one another.
The woman in the foreground addresses the viewer with her gaze as if she is unaware of what is happening behind her. Her proxies, each flanking the background space, are aware though – glaring at the men in the middle-ground. While a red female figure first introduced in Collateral Damage appears toward the upper-center of the picture plane, ready for battle. The putti pictured are dismayed and disappointed that this interaction between the sexes is still occurring. Putti can be found in the late Gothic paintings of Giotto, through the Quattrocento period, Renaissance, into the Baroque, etc...Putti were often utilized as a symbol of the omnipresence of God, which is why you can find them hovering around rather catastrophic events in such works. Therefore, they felt like an appropriate motif to use within this piece. The aforementioned sculptural elements expand the painting and display the drama and action of the battle. Here we see the blue-green men from the painting brawling with female figures that appear to be very similar to the red figure from within the painting. The violet color of the female sculptures mimics the color of the ground in the painting, suggesting that they are donning camouflage to provide better cover during the attack.
I first believed that Gilded Splinters (Platoon) would be the final work in the series but felt that just two more paintings would help to round out the narrative. Allies and Foray were begun simultaneously as Gilded Splinters (Platoon) was near completion. Foray provides insight on the outcome of the battle displayed in Collateral Damage and Gilded Splinters (Platoon). It displays a squad of women discussing their victory and perhaps detailing personal moments of battle with their comrades. The male figures have been reduced to a gelatinous mess on the ground, duplicated by the somewhat amorphous melted head that frames the piece along its top edge. Each side of the painting is flanked with more action: displaying some of the fallen soldiers in their final act of defiance. These side sections of framing were very much influenced by Rodin’s The Gates of Hell.
Although the series of work displays a clear battle of the sexes, I wanted to communicate to viewers that I do not view male and female roles in such a simplistic way; my hope is that Allies does just that. An angelic woman looks lovingly toward the three-dimensional male figure on the right side of the painting. This male figure is repeated four times, both in painted and sculptural forms; their positioning suggesting a protective stance. The bottom portion of the frame is overflowing with flowers to suggest fragility and grace. Daffodils and roses were chosen for the spray as they are symbolic of love, forgiveness and new beginnings.
On May 19th, 2018, a panel discussion was held at the Linda Matney Fine Arts Gallery. The discussion revolved around Alison Stinely’s Gilded Splinters exhibition, the image and influence of women contemporary artists, and how censorship impacts the art world, in general.
Alison Stinely: In 2016, I submitted a proposal for exhibition with Norfolk Arts, the city arts council, which was accepted for exhibition and scheduled a year in advance. Now, Norfolk Arts had two gallery spaces at the time. One was Offsite gallery, which is in the world trade center in Norfolk and the other is Transit gallery, which is kind of the smaller space where they put newer artists or even student artists and that was inside of HRT. And so, Offsite gallery, being within the World Trade Center, they ran the work by the tenants in the building who immediately rejected it, which is fine. It was a private space, technically. So, they put me in the transit gallery. And like I said, this was scheduled a year in advance. And, everything that was in the proposal was delivered. I delivered three cargo vans of work to the gallery and about two hours after I dropped the last load off, I got an email from a representative of Norfolk Arts saying ,”that the show had to be edited.” So, I asked, “what does that mean and based on what?” And, I was told that basically the nudity was offensive. So then I said, “Well, if we edit out the nudity, there are like four paintings that I can show, and that’s not much of a show.” So, they effectively canceled the exhibition and, subsequently, Lee [Matney] found out about it and picked it up, which I’m so grateful for. That’s been my experience with censorship and the fallout from it...there was some like real vitriol on all sides, which was kind of exciting; people became so upset. I think some people were more upset than I was, which was very nice to see. Some folks both offered their support and simultaneously agreed that my work was totally inappropriate for transit gallery. It’s been an interesting experience.
Diana Blanchard Gross: But, did the individuals at Transit gallery have the same opportunity to look at your work like they did at Offsite so they…?
Stinely: I was told that the work was approved by those at Transit gallery, so the miscommunication was between Norfolk Arts and transit gallery...whatever happened, I don’t know. I’m not privy to that. All I know is that I showed up when I was contractually obligated to show up with the work that was approved. So there was some kind of communication breakdown, and I don’t know exactly what happened there.
Gross: You would’ve thought that if they had seen your work, similar to the other gallery, and they approved it, then they had the same opportunities…
Stinely: For them to speak up.
Vittorio Colaizzi: It was sold to you or communicated to you by Norfolk Arts as “good to go.” So, you were right to assume that it was good to go.
Stinely: And my understanding, and this is all hearsay because I wasn’t kept in the loop after the cancellation, was that an employee stated that he or she “felt sexually harassed by my paintings.” So, it’s almost like...I wrote in my notes-- "Did the MeToo movement bite me in the ass?”
Vic: Well it hadn’t really picked up steam at that point, I don’t think, had it? But certainly sexual harassment was a part of the discourse. It’s been an issue.
Audience Member: What is sexually---well I don’t know---were they using that as a “red shirt”?
Vic: You know what I suspect---and reading some of the internet comments on the Pilot Online---somebody said they were “porn”, someone said they “weren’t nudes they were zombies.” I suspect at least part of the reaction might come, not even from the fact that they’re nudes but, just from the general weirdness of your vision. I think that there are people, non-art specialists, who have an idea on what is beautiful and what is right and when something takes something that is recognizably derived from a renaissance vision of that but then very clearly twists it, that can be very offensive and unsettling. And, your work is scary and I think that’s part of your vision, part of what you’re saying...it conveniently is also nude so it gives people something to complain about. Is that reasonable or do you think that’s part of the intrigue?
Stinely: No, I think that is part of the reaction, it was not just the nudity. The scary aspect of it...I really have to dig for because my threshold is so high. So, to me, my works are relatively conservative figure paintings.
Gross: Scary because of the different colors or…?
Stinely: So, none of them are posed in a outwardly sexual way. We don’t have any money shots here. They’re not interacting in a sexual way so, I think the placement of them...if you look at the title piece, "Gilded Splinters," the female figure is sitting--that could be a pose from any public figure session. So, when you have more than one figure within the picture plane, there will be tension between them. I suppose the nudity adds a sexual aspect for some viewers. But, to me, nudity is neutral. It's like Rupaul said, “We’re all born naked and the rest is all drag.” The most neutral thing you can be is naked. We got dressed today thinking about what we look like and other people would read what we’re wearing. So, to me, no clothing is neutral, not marked and not sexual.
Vic: I think there is a big gap between the general public and art specialists. In teaching art history, almost every semester, it comes from an honest place, but also a place of of a discomfort that a student will ask, “why are there so many nudes? Why am I having to look at so much nudity?” And I explained the whole neutral thing. I say, “Look, you look at someone naked, you can't tell where they're from. It's from centuries and millennia as being a symbol of otherness, timelessness,” And there is a cultural gap. Maybe other times in human history, other cultures, other times in this country's history, people had less hangups, but they think---it's so weird---our country is both lewd and prudish at the same.
Alison: It is. I don't remember the exact statistic, but the amount of internet pornography that's consumed in this country is more than you’d think it may be. And so those same people who may clutch their pearls when they see my paintings might go home and go online. They're consuming it behind closed doors.
Audience Members: I think a lot of the general public just doesn't like things that are different. You have several elements on these that are just different, they’re unusual to say the least, you know, the three dimensional things coming out of the side. But they're just intolerant, you know, they don't understand it. We (installed) art and we changed shows six times a year. Sometimes it was a show that you don't respond to it. Or there's stuff like this, it's just layer of meaning and symbolism and things and using traditional artistic viewpoints to express that. And there's a whole lot of people who have no tolerance for that. So once you start getting out into the public spaces with people, you know, the general public, you're going to have backlash anytime you do anything , not just similar to this, it's all kind of pretty bizarre.
Lita Tirak: Well, one of the things that I think about when I, when I look at this---actually this particular work, behind Robert here, is that feces?
Alison: Well, it's the innards of the affected folks that we have over here. So, it’s blood, I suppose. But I like the idea of it being feces too. Sure.
Lita: The reason why I mentioned it, is that I think that it's not just that this work is scary but, I think it's got elements of the grotesque in it. And the grotesque has historically been considered very radical. The grotesque being related to the carnivalesque and having to do with bodily fluids and the body parts that we have to conceal. That element, perhaps it's something that they take ….I don’t know maybe for women artist, that a particularly difficult thing to work with.
Alison: I think it is especially difficult for women artists, knowing the history of feminist artists in the sixties and seventies, how they were kept out of galleries and museums depending on what the imagery of their work. But after looking further, digging deeper, it really is kind of disproportionate in the way that it affects female artists. Laying out recent incidents of censorship, you of course have male artists being censored. But really when it comes to the body, females tend to be kind of silenced more. So it could be that, I don't know, I can't get in these people's heads. I'm not sure.
Lita: The other thing, when I first saw your work and you mentioned how you were censored because of the nudity and I thought well, but you know, I mean Busch Gardens has a statue of a nude woman. Nobody complains about that. Right? But anyway, is it more just that, that your work really doesn't work with it, it counters it, that kind of exposes the male gaze. If there's an expectation that's placed on the female nude that the female nude shouldn't be a fetish object and that you don't let that happen with your work---that your work averts the gaze.
Alison: Yeah, 'I can't consume this figure the way I want to so it's not valid.'
Vic: I think that’s a great point. The female figures have agency in this, you know, even a relatively passive figure seated there. She's meeting her gaze. She has mental agency. She's a personality. We might along the same lines, consider the African American man on this one here. He also has agency in a way that given the other depictions that we see in the media, as the victim, as suspect, even the way the way in which the image, and by implication, the personality, travels. Maybe that's not one of the upsetting paintings but I think it's part of your entire set is to give agency, to create thought and ambiguity where there wasn’t. That's what's most defensive, to say, “Maybe you're not right about this. “ I remember years ago when Bush, I know this is an old reference, but when Bush and John Kerry were campaigning against one another, John Kerry makes some comment about his voting record and Bush said there, “there's nothing so complicated about defending your country.” That kind of seemingly simple slogan is very comforting to some people, but it tapered overs the incredible complexity of Senate rules and bill's changing, etc. I think it’s the complexity of the work that frightened too.
Alison: It seems like people have a hard time getting past step one with anything. A political argument, uh, biases about anything. They don't want to think too hard about things.
Vic: Can I ask Diane a question? Do you have any good stories?
Diane: You know we don't censor art work. I vet my artists. And, we did have one incident a long time ago where there was an artist, she had created a wonderful piece and it had some nudity in it. And then the, um, the individual that was kind of curating that space, it wasn't myself, he was like, “well, you know, we'll put a curtain over it.” And I was like, “yeah, but then it's like a peep show.” It's like, so we're like, no, just, you know, it was, it was in a place kind of, you know, down the hallway, near some restrooms, and we're like, we're just going to let it be. Because if you don't make a big deal about it, then it's not a big deal. You know, if you put a huge curtain over it, people are really going to be like “What is it?” But other than that, we really haven't had any issues as far as nudity. We had people that haven’t cared for certain works of art.
Vic: It could be even more aggressive and pointed in pointing out in its support of art yeah is its going to be uncomfortable because art is good and happy and good for economic development and come see our happy murals, but maybe it should stick in your craw a little bit and it make you uncomfortable. I don't see that happening but wouldn’t it be nice?
Alison: It makes me think of the confederate monuments. Those weren't commissioned by public institutions; most of them were commissioned by private citizens in the 20th century, not as a direct reaction to the civil war, but to posture and oppress.
Diana: But everyone has an opinion and you may not like my opinion. I may not like your opinion, but aren't all of our opinions valid and so shouldn't you let those individuals speak?
Alison: We have to.
Vic: Wasn't there a gallery that opened up in Brooklyn a couple of years ago that showed pro like right wing art, republican art, even some trump supporting art and basically it was, from what I've heard, it was terrible, and the art world, which is despite my own political leanings, I think unhealthily, homogeneously liberal sort of condemned it for its messages, and for its technique and its execution. I'd love to see a good attempt at conservative art, quality, conservative art. I haven't seen anything that's less than 200 years old.
Audience: George Bush is doing something, isn’t he?
Audience: Wow. Oh, pointing out is that if people are offended both ways. Now when you, when you say you're going to have this exhibit in Norfolk, you know, they said it's okay, you know, because they looked at the art at one place that said no and the other place said ok I guess at that point if you're going to censor anything you just say no from the start...from whatever reason and that still is pretty much the same thing.
Alison: Minus the money and time.
Audience member: Or when an artist changes you know what they are going to do, like the neptunes statue in the Virginia beach. The artist had this concept of putting stuff, pollution from the sea all around and the whole concept was going and then during the installation the artist decided they wanted to put a giant, a large gas mask on Neptune himself and then the city manager say, “you can't do it. It's not part of what we agreed on,” and the artist said, “I am taking all my stuff and leaving.” It works both ways, I guess, but usually you hear about it more from your point of view because once the general public sees anything that isn't Norman Rockwell or a few bucolic scenes of whatever, anything that's challenging or says, Oh yeah, this is uncomfortable in spots. Real life is like that, what the heck.
Alison: It comes down to the contract in my case, you know. And so, I mean if the artists packed up and left then that's their bad, right? You didn't have this in the proposal, it wasn’t accepted you just can't wildly change the work that was accepted.
Audience member: Yes unless it is allowed in advance to work on it when (they) get there.
Vic: There were no surprises for me. This was the work that you proposed.
Alison: With the exception of the four small "Conglomerate" works --in this series--those were new, but those are just heads. So they didn't have any issue with that.
Vic: You know, there was a, I think the show before yours, um, there was a very sexual painting in one of those it was like, I dunno, maybe I'm exaggerating, but it was a couple, I don't know if it was a couple in a landscape on a picnic blanket and I, I remember being surprised. Yeah, I remember because it was so kind of tame and slightly abstracted maybe no one noticed it or you know, but I think that speaks to maybe the idea that just because they're so, uh, uh, naturalistic in their detail and unusual in their narrative that, that that's part of what's upsetting. people are afraid of pig heads.
Audience member: Oh yeah. Some people just don't like skulls and that’s ok.
Lee Matney Some of my own art and art of represented artists in the local area over the years have been called dark or demonic scary on there was question of whether to censor the work
Alison: My work?
Lee Matney. Other works over the last 20 years.
Alison: I'm interested in the different ways that we try to censor each other. We can't be so upset about everything all the time that we shut down shows. If we want real change, my paintings aren't going to change anything, right? They can point at things---artwork can point---but a single work of art can't change anything. But if we want to take the Dana Schutz incident, that opened up this whole discourse again and got us talking. Those hoping that it would be taken down...really? Or were they really just trying to get this kind of discussion going? And so what the end game is, I don't know, but the way that we attack each other isn't right. We want to say that we're open minded, but when it comes down to it, we all have our sensitivities and we can't expect people to kowtow to one person's or group's sensitivity.
Lee Matney: I was at a show in the south in Georgia, actually curated the show. And there was a librarian sitting, looking at a piece. And he called it, “a scathing indictment of heresy?” Yes. And so it's kind of interesting. He was talking at possibly from a conservative point of view. [The artist] didn't have that idea at all when she made the piece
Vic: That’s fascinating if someone could get something so different. And so kind of traditionally outside of the normative customs of the art community.
Audience Member: I think people read so much into art, based on their own experience. It's just like dreams. I wrote my dreams down. I wake up in the middle of night creams and whenever it tell him to my wife, she always has some idea but one thing or another, but they're very, very personal and I think when you engage with a piece of artwork, I think you bring so many of your own experiences to it. I think the thing that people have reacted to that, that way of, at who didn't want her show, I think a lot of those people were probably just bringing own crazy to it and not being able to deal with that. But the nudity thing, that's definitely kind of a strange thing to point out. I think. I mean, you know, they, our flag for Virginia as a woman with a bare breast, I mean come on guys.
Vic: That's too much for John Ashcroft when he was the attorney general, they draped the statue of Justice in Washington who had two bare breasts. He had her draped, you know, I guess because he didn't want to distract himself while he was giving speeches. Right. The idea that, um, you know, the, um, that there was a slogan I've been seeing on instagram clothing is not consent. The idea that men are somehow justified in victimizing women if they're tempted by clothing, right? Well, similarly, I don't have, I shouldn't have to look at this because it makes me think bad thoughts. Yeah, exactly. Someone who was calling this pornography, well gee, what do you get off on? Right?
Audience Member: I think it's the grotesque, it's nude, it's just so foreign or alien.
Vic: I mean, not that particular thing, but certainly the grotesque is longstanding. I'd love to go back to that SMS. I'm, uh, I wonder if, let's see, there's so many things I want to ask. One of the sort of prompts that Lita came up with, is that the kind of place in the history of the female nude? We've talked about that a little bit, but Alison, I wonder if you could talk about the difference between the specific nudes, who looked like individuals who have hair and then the ones both male and female who are bald and generalized.
Alison: I wanted to make them very general. I want them to be kind of unmarked except for their gender. So no hair. Nudity is neutral to me, but I mean we can still say here's a fit white woman with this kind of hair or what have you. And input our own biases into those characteristics, but it was just a way of neutralizing down to gender. And then just color coding them kind of gender normative colors. We have some violets and reds for women and shades of blue for the men.
Lee Matney: Yeah, I think there's a hidden way. There's all kinds of different thinking.
Audience Member: Visual Art, just like the music, say music, you know, music could be rap to one person and opera to another. You've got art like this that’s surrealistic and alien. And then you have Rembrandt etchings, you know, so if you'd like, Rembrandt etchings doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to like this or vice versa. There’s not that many people who are open-minded in the middle. I'd like to think that I am. And that's what people should do. But unless, you know one thing that's, just know those elements of the bizarre that some people do not care for at all. And that's what it is.
Vic: I mean I think that's a great point. You know, if you really think that art, the whole discipline of art and based on the Internet comments, I know there are people who think this, the whole discipline of art is rotten to the core then make your own damn art. Right? I mean the whole art world will be, will be richer for more views, you know, step up, see how hard it is, but also give us your voice. You know, I wonder also if the general public, because I'm really interested in the relationship between art specialists and what a lot of my students like to call “normies”, sometimes “muggles” if the relationship might help, you know, it's too bad museums are so slow because what if the Chrysler museum could have hosted some kind of symposium on your work, uh, and looked at through the lens of medieval and Baroque altarpieces because that's what I see and I know that's, you know, directly intentional. Margaret [Richardson] mentioned something about that in our catalog essay. You know, I looked at this, I think of the, the, the, the Duccio at the MET with the kind of burned, the bottom edge of the frame where it was placed over a candle. You know, it was a devotional object and I guess these aren't devotional objects just because art plays a different function in our society, but they, they recall that, you know, and they don't play that pure autonomous art game anymore. But in any case, I just wonder, maybe not, but I wonder if that would help people deal with that, if they saw that the link to historic art
Alison: See, my barometer is off. Because I thought it was so straightforward, but people who haven’t studied art history may not make those connections. I repeatedly said after the show was canceled: these are the same people who go on a tour of Italy and look up at the ceiling of the Duomo, look at the fresco on ceiling and think “how beautiful, oh my god” because of its age, or its connection to history and totally overlook the pitchforks going up people’s behinds. If it's something contemporary, are people unable to read visual language or make historic connections?
Diana: I think it took contemporary or is the hardest for people to understand even though it's what we live in today because they---unless you put it in a historical context, they're not going to get it and they're, you know, and they're going to be frustrated without some sort of, you know, label copy or something that kind of references---this is because most artists are looking back at history. This is nothing new. I mean, there were looking back at, you know, what have artists done in the past and what can I do new. So, but I think just in general, contemporary art, you know, you say that to “muggles” and they're just like, “uh, I don't, you know, I can't understand it. I don't want to look at it. I want to look at a Rembrandt etching,” you know? And so it's, I think I, you know, I think that's the norm. I think there's got to be somewhere where we can't make it such a dirty word and that we need to get the visitors, the whomever that we're in contact with to give them more information so that they can interpret it better and make him input. Obviously if they're coming to like a museum or a gallery or something, they're obviously interested. So how do you then know, grab them a little bit more and have them understand.
Lee: Also how do you create a momentum that continues? Because I see people that they kind of go backtrack to this kind of, you know what’s safe.
Alison: That would have been a great thing for discussion. That's really, I think what should have come in that moment when people were engaged with it. But yeah, it's like a matter of accessibility and I just think there's nothing more accessible than a figure painting, you know, because you see yourself in it; it's another person. But going that extra mile in trying to reel people in just to even justify the existence of contemporary art because so many people don't see its value. And so that's the first thing that I think as a society that we need to try to do. We won't be able to do it within the next two years, but something has to happen there. Right? Public Education, but also explaining, making the connections for people.
Diana: But if you really think about it, all art, in one, sense was contemporary art.
Alison: So, I guess we do need the church.
Vic: Critic, Peter Schjeldahl said something like, well, he's not the only one, but it's an uncomfortable fact that great liberalness in society, democracy, is maybe not the best thing for art when you consider the great art that was produced by an autocratic, theocratic society. I wouldn't want to go back to it.
Audience Member: Let's see, you said contemporary art as you were saying, you know, all art at one point was contemporary. It has to settle out, you know, um, contemporary art from the seventies and sixties are not..all of it staying with time like we have, you know, we have the artists that we know and whose art has been accepted more or less. Contemporary art has to test the boundaries and be engaging in a way that the standards aren't. And eventually what'll happen is they become standards themselves if they, you know, there's some blend of academia, but also public acceptance that has to occur for it to really catch up.
Alison: I actually brought the...
Diane: Do you have a contract?
Alison: The letter that effectively closed the gallery because they closed the entire operation down.
Diane: What makes me angry that they didn't even call you, they emailed you. That's the point that I don't care for as a professional, you know, if I had an issue I would call you and say, “look” versus an email.
Alison: It's open for interpretation, but going forward, I mean, I'm just going to keep making these things and displaying these narratives. Maybe even off-the-wall sculpture, although I don't know. We'll see about that. This incident made me think about my values and my definition of obscenity, you know, and I have so much more room before I hit my own definition of obscene. So maybe I'll play in that area for a little bit. I won't be showing at the Norfolk city galleries with any of that work, but that's OK. I'm just going to keep playing with these themes and posing my very conservative figures in these ways that creates some tension and just keep making stuff.
Diane: As far as other exhibitions that you have had like north and south and west, have you, um, where else have you shown and have the work's been accepted in other areas of the country?
Alison: Yeah, so the furthest South I've gone was Baton Rouge. The farthest north, I guess is my own hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. Also in New York City, Chicago, and you know, university galleries scattered throughout the midwest and northeast. And the only time I've had any issues with the display of my work or censorship of any kind was when I had a show in my hometown at the Erie art museum. Actually it was a group show there with that painting ("Nocturnal Emissions" and they strategically placed it so that when groups of children came through during field trips they could walk them past without them seeing it. And I said ok, we don't want to give kids nightmares. Maybe we do though, maybe it’d be good for them. But that was the only time that happened. But from that group show, I got a solo show in their gallery that's street view and there was no issue, you know, they had big windows you can look right in off the street and see that painting was in that exhibition as well. So I haven't, I haven't experienced anything like this before.
Diane: Well I do think this area is conservative, either up north, and so I'm used to, um, you know, I'm not accustomed to it. But it's interesting that some people are so offended. Depends on how you're brought up, your environment.
Audience Member: It's also interesting that, you know, people complain and why wasn't it handled there? People who were in charge, could have stated that, “well, this is art”, you know, why wasn't there any point of that?
Lita: Well, what I wonder too is, with education and exposing kids to art, a lot of it does have nudity. Why would the feel like they have to hide it away? Why wouldn’t they be comfortable just talking about it? And I mean, it just seems like there's...
Audience Member: Thirty 3rd graders, in a group, you know, an adult, it’s like, gets out of hand.
Vic: But, you know, I wonder, I understand that. My wife teaches in the public schools. I have students who teach in the public schools and it's my understanding that, you know, nudity is just off the table. It would take a big cultural change to change that. But I suspect it's not a big deal, say in Italy, where kids can drink wine. I just, I feel like I, I was um, at the, at the Virginia MOCA a month or so ago and they have Inka Essenhigh there and there was a painting in which an erect penis was visible but just barely visible. It was the same color as a figure, which is pretty much the same color as the background. And a woman said to her friend, “you might want, you might not want to go over to this section, this section, this section right here, stay away.” There you go. It could have no big deal. Right? So if as a society, again, I don't think this is likely, but if as a society we could just accept that, okay, art from the present and the past contains nudity. It's maybe not a big deal about
Lita: ...but it's something that can be discussed and talked about in a healthy way, you know, maybe.
Alison: No, it's true. So going back to kids in Italy drinking wine, in Europe and many European countries where a child can have a glass of wine. They don’t have the widespread binge-drinking issues that we have. Because alcohol is not a forbidden fruit. We can think about the human form in the same way, you know, if, if it's not treated as taboo then it's just not taboo. It's how we define it. And so when we, as a country, have schools teaching abstinence-only sex education, which is the least realistic expectation, it's just not a realistic way of treating biology. And so it's, it's this “everything's a forbidden fruit and you want it because you can't have it.” So I don't know what the answer is, it would take a monumental shift that isn't going to come anytime soon. But, in terms of an artists first amendment right to free speech, we can rely - or should be able to rely - on the constitution.
Audience Member: Contract law.
Alison: Right, I need a lawyer. But we do have that. You can rely on that.
Alison: We need to continue this kind of dialogue so that we can avoid these issues in the future. If any government - city, state, federal, is going to invest in art and to operate a gallery, they can't favor particular content or point of view . The problem is in the language, and so as long as the work is not obscene, you cannot censor it, but what's obscene? What constitutes obscenity?
Lita: That changes in every generation.
Alison. Right. So, the currently binding Supreme Court precedent on the issue that the court ruled, quote: ‘materials were obscene if they appealed to a prurient interest, showed patently offensive sexual conduct that was specifically defined by a state obscenity law and lack serious artistic literary, political or scientific value. Decisions regarding whether material was obscene should be based on local, not national standards.’
Vic: That seems to have been determined on a case-by-case basis, the Robert Mapplethorpe trial. I wonder if Sally Mann's ever gone to trial. So, often--maybe going back to James Joyce--and what seems to often happen is a jury will decide--but it seems to me based on precedent that juries are relatively easy to convince that there is artistic merit. You know, it's saying something about our society. I mean it's pain. I know you'd rather just not have to go to court, but in other words it seems like that law might be workable. You know what I mean? It seems to be workable because it seems to leave a big loophole. [The law] doesn't say, “no sex. Sex is bad. Nudity is bad. We want to be a pure nation.” Right. You know what I mean?
Alison: What happens now? Where do we go?
Lita: Did you ever encounter anybody coming up to you and just asking you, as a woman, why you work with the nude? Did you ever get faced with that?
Alison: Probably, but not in a way that has ever burned a hole in my brain. I have had people give me a side eye; suggesting that they're wondering what's ‘wrong’ with me, but never anything outward. But I think the answer is kind of obvious, right? To reclaim the nude for myself; how women are portrayed constantly. How many decades can we talk about the way that women are displayed in media, etc. But yeah, I mean that's pretty clear, right? To have our own agency to reclaim. I mean, these could all be self portraits. They're not, but they could be.
Alison: I was recently thinking about when women started to go take art classes in academia or ateliers, for the most part, they were not able the view male nude when they were doing figure drawings and even sometimes they couldn’t see females nudes. Now, this is not so in every instance, but it was what it was for many women artists. The models had to be draped with fabric or wear something to cover their bits, but women weren’t really allowed to work with the nudes, at least that wasn’t the norm. Why is that a taboo thing?
Lita: And um, and even just the idea of women kind of exposing themselves in some capacity. When I did research on x rays, there was this concern that--it was like women have to cover themselves up because it would be almost like inspiring other women to expose themselves. Even the comstock era of obscenity where you had laws about, you know, hiding the things that were obscene and collecting things from the post office. It was not so much about hiding these things for men, the hiding them from women because it could cause these excessive behaviors of women. Now, women are supposed to be--there’s an expectation of women that is very modest and that a lot of this, I guess we can talk about porn, but the hiding away of that. It's like the men, of course, are who would collect the materials. They will actually get together and look at it together as long as women aren’t around. There’s this old dynamic that's still present.
Alison: It is still there. I think for the most part it's not, right? And we can wear whatever we want. But it is still there and it is insidious. Just yesterday I was scrolling through Instagram and there there was some kind of campaign for the New York subways, public art for the New York subways and there's an illustrator who makes these kind of flat, geometric figurative scenes of women in their underwear lounging in their apartments. And they're very, very benign. And it was rejected. And someone made the point in the instagram comments like, you know, ‘you can ride on the subway and see viagra ads constantly. But this, you know, pink figures like to cause some ruckus.’ So yeah, I can make these things, right? I can go to figure sessions and see all kinds of naked bodies now. But I think there is a different expectation of female artists. Marilyn Minter--that quote that I sent around, I love that quote--she says the ‘art world loves young, bad boys and old women’ We've come so far with so many things, but there's this underlying taboo, you know, maybe I would like to portray the anatomy of the vagina. There's something in me that would say ‘maybe you shouldn't do that’, you know? I just went off on a tangent. But yeah, like with race relations, we've come so far but we haven’t. It's like women having to go into those weird little pods in public to breastfeed. Have you seen those things? They put them in airports and you're in like breastfeeding tubes. You go into a private tube to breastfeed. Is there anything more natural in the world than breastfeeding? A woman can't breastfeed in public?
Vic: Maybe they should make a little place for men to go who can't handle watching it.
Lita: Do you consider yourself a feminist artist? Do you consider yourself a feminist that makes art?
Alison:Yes. “Socialist” has become a bad word in American political discourse. Now, “feminist” evokes the same reaction. I think of it in a way that's accepting, not exclusive. I'm not going to define feminism for others, but yes, I think of myself as a feminist first in the way I behave. I think most people make art from those places. What am I? What do I have to say? What do I have to point out? What do I want to talk about? And usually that comes from their experiences throughout their life, that’s natural.
Vic: But it's amazing. I have many students who are uncomfortable with the word because they think that it means something radical or violent.
Lita: I think it's kind of an old idea that being a feminist is like a man hater. I think that that idea was maybe late 20th century.
Alison: It shouldn't even be a categorization...We'd like to say, “Well, I don't see you as just a woman artist.” The fact that I am is important. It's like white people who say that they’re color blind, “I don't see color.” Well, you should see color because it's informed POC’s entire lives. Right? The distinction is important and having a blindness to things that mark others is dangerous. We all have our political leanings and our place in society and we probably have maybe more openness to people who are like us. But we cannot let our individual stances override the freesharing that is the art world, we have to let all of it in. We have to.
Vic: In other words, you would feel if you were administering public space, you would able to sense of civic responsibility to hear different views?
Vic: That's interesting.
Alison: But then it comes out in the process of vetting applications. What are those things based off? What are decisions made on? Quality? Viewpoint?
Audience Member: You've got to have some choice, but like you said, you can have balance in the long term. All museums that are open to the public do that. You try to have a balance of contemporary, then you have an old show, then a Native American show, stuff from India--just keep going for variety. Who can complain? Well everyone can but then no one can. So that's great. It’s so hard to figure out, you know, because it all boils down to who's on your exhibition group, the director maybe some artists in the community, and that type of thing. So it all has influence on what people choose.
Vic: That's what I think greater communication, greater transparency between art specialists and non-specialists can better because I have to explain to the students that the art world is not homogenous. There is great discord and disagreement in the art world among experts on committees. And I think if more people realized that, they’d realized that it's not just a single entity hoisting stuff onto the public.
Alison: I think some people are intimidated by fine art. They don't see the connection between their everyday lives and a space like this. So in a couple of years, maybe there will be efforts made - on a grand scale - to reintroduce arts education and really teach people how to read visual language and the importance of these things. Or else we’re all going to have really ugly houses, really ugly cars, and really ugly clothes because people who have taken “art classes” have had their hands in many aspects of your everyday life. The movie “Idiocracy” will become even more prophetic.
Diana: At the Peninsula Fine Arts Center, I always like to show more historical art work and then juxtapose that with contemporary so that people do see what's going on, how contemporary artists are informed and I feel like that's the key is to somehow if you just show contemporary nudes, I don't know how well it would be received versus if you show it in a different context, in a different light that people could, you know, reimagine. We did an exhibition on African art and so I mixed traditional African objects with contemporary. So I had these two this Africa a sculpture and it was these two individuals and the one man had his hand on the woman's breast. Then in the same gallery I had a Robert Colescott piece, it was huge and there are so many different things in there and the teachers actually crashed the opening reception and they're looking at this work to find what's the offensive thing in there. And they were like, ‘you can't go to the show, you can't take your kids to the show. It's got nudity, blah, blah blah.’ But yet, you know, and they were referencing the Robert Colescott piece and not even referencing or seeing the African piece at all. And these are art teachers and I'm going, ‘we are in trouble.’
Vic: Do you think it's--I mean I'm curious about the attitude at which they were scouring the Robert Colescott. Did you sense almost like--they gleeful in bring the hammer down on Colescott? It sounds like they internalize those rules that they're forced to live by. What a terrible pity they can’t bring their kids to see the show.
Lita: Well, actually I'm thinking right now that maybe is there some hope here and that is maybe not all come from the art teachers, actually, it may come from the interests, now, in gender studies and women's studies in particular, and maybe that's not middle school, that might be more high school, but I think that's actually starting getting integrated into curriculum; talking about women's studies, particularly now with the “me too” movement and all these other things going on that, that the news, you know, any museums or galleries might be a very powerful resource in terms of understanding women and their bodies.
Alison: And I think social media. For as much as people want to poo-poo social media. I mean you can go on Tumblr, and you have these kids who are writing theses on identity, politics, and gender. They write these amazing things and have discussions with one another across these platforms. And yeah, you have the occasional kid who feels like he/she has to take a sexy selfie of themself here and there, but otherwise I think it's a really great tool. I hope that the positive force of social media will prevail over the darker side of things.
Vic: Certainly young people, but maybe people in general are very savvy at reading media imagery and the ambiguity that is built into media imagery. For example, the Childish Gambino video that everyone is talking about. Do we think that he is in favor of machine gun in church choirs? I don't think anybody thinks that's his position. I think as a society we are media sophisticated enough to know that that was a commentary on gun violence. But somehow I think fewer people are art savvy. I think people who would get that might not get these.
Alison: To me, it just seems so intertwined.
Lita: That video, honestly, I'm so happy that there is so much conversation happening. They're looking for meaning and that meaning is connecting to art. I think people are seeking about a video as art and I think it's amazing.
Audience Member: What did you take away from watching it again?
Lita: That video challenges your attention and its supposed to. There's so much going on in the backgrounds and there's so--like the way the camera kind of takes us from shootings and it just takes us into another kind of dancing sequence. It's about our attention and where we want to spend our time focusing.
Audience Member: Well what did you take away from the content?
Alison: Ok so yesterday, 10 children died in Texas. Today, CNN’s cover story is the Royal wedding. But there's more layers, right? It's talking about race relations, black culture, hip pop culture, specifically. And our attention spans as a nation.
Audience Member: Did you come away knowing something you didn’t know before?
Alison: I didn't know that I liked Childish Gambino’s music as much as I do... I liked Redbone a lot, but prior to that I didn’t really listen. No, but that's what I said earlier-- art points at things. Art isn't going to fix things. It might help a person in their life, the process of making something, but the music video is not going to change anything but it might wake people up. It sparked a lot of conversation. All art reports human history, in some way. And so that's going to be on the Internet as long as humans are around, it's always going to be there. It's going to be a monument to this moment in time. So no, I didn't learn anything that I didn't know.
Audience Member: I don’t know that we’ve learned a lot more from that. It did have neat graphics and it’s about violence and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t already abhor that. So that's kinda where I was coming from. I thought it was interesting thing to see. The challenge will be how do you do something that grips people, that puts a more positive message towards that kind of thing?
Alison: Well, I don’t think there’s anything positive about any of that.
Audience Member: No, I mean positive in---What's the solution? What can be learned?
Audience Member: I don’t think that video was meant to give you an answer. I think it’s just commentary on what's going on.
Audience Member: And to that degree, it worked. But the challenge is I think, I don't know what the answer is, would be how would you have something as powerful as that that could focus on how do we change things. How do we make it better you?
Lita: It's not necessarily all problems but it is talking about even the black experience and, I read a lot about how African Americans interpret the video. Um, but actually as far as solutions go, that's actually what my job is right now...I guess I'm going to do this now because you inspired me to say, okay, so I'm going to make it a collection of stories that would be a response to the Childish Gambino [video]. How do they interpret that? What are some reasons is going on in the world, some solutions that might work with that video? I think that is an interesting question.
Vic: The video might be more towards a slightly more towards a solution that we seem to be saying in that it provides, um, a picture of black subjectivity that maybe hasn't been out there before. I mean, I'm not super familiar with hip hop, but I know the attitude, you know, I'm vaguely aware of Jay Z. When I was very young, my brother listened to what I now realize were like pioneers of hip hop, like Grandmaster Flash and I'm so privileged to have heard that at the very beginning. It's changed since then. It's not so subversive as Public Enemy, which he was out by the time they came along. In other words, a lot of the hip hop personas seem to me. We all know that there is a lot of misogyny, a lot of emphasis on money and power. And I think the subjectivity of Childish Bambino, it's more of a ‘I'm a citizen of this country, I'm a citizen of the world. I'm a citizen in my community and seeing all this stuff happening and don't know quite what to make of it, but I'm going to give you my view of it’ and it's maybe more identifiable to everyone.