The photograph is black as an oil slick. Its mat is black and its frame, too, is solid black. Blank and impenetrable, the image returns its viewer's stare. Quickly, to the label for a clue. Here, the eyes widen, taking in the string of expletives and pejoratives that make up the work's title.
Something similar must have happened when members of the fundamentalist American Family Assn. first saw Andres Serrano's photograph of a crucifix floating in yellow liquid. The image turned from luminous to blasphemous in their eyes when they read that its title was "Piss Christ."
The group's outrage over Serrano's photograph touched off a debate in Congress that began with the widening of eyes and quickly led to the ripping of catalogues and the slashing of budgets. This week, members of a House/Senate conference committee will be deciding whether restrictions proposed by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) should be placed on the National Endowment for the Arts to prevent the agency from supporting art considered "obscene," "indecent" or otherwise offensive.
Under the terms of the Helms amendment, Theresa Pendlebury's all-black photograph would be banned from any NEA-supported show, as would most of the work in the exhibition "No Stomach," a latter-day Salon des Refuses at Installation (930 E St.) through Sept. 30.
Who will decide which art deserves the official sanction of NEA and which does not is just one of the myriad issues raised in the current debate in Congress and seized with fervor, humor and occasional elo quence by the 50 San Diego, Los Angeles and Tijuana artists in "No Stomach."
Some indulge in puerile sensationalism, flouting the taboo of explicit sexual imagery. They open their diaries to heated passages, splice together biblical and pornographic texts and sculpt tableaux of flying phalluses.
Espousing the rights of such artists to show their work becomes a matter of defending bad art for a good cause. Many arts leaders find themselves in that bind today when they defend the NEA's integrity but admit their own ambivalence toward Serrano's work or Robert Mapplethorpe's, which also raised congressional ire. The reaction in "No Stomach" weakens the exhibition, but it doesn't diminish the show's cumulative impact as a protest against censorship and a plea for expressive freedom.
Many works in the show address those issues intelligently and provocatively. A brochure by David Avalos, Louis Hock, Elizabeth Sisco and Deborah Small links the homogenizing efforts of corporate America with the restrictive language of the Helms amendment. The symptoms of such cultural streamlining are all too evident here in San Diego, the group writes, citing the City Council's repression of art that it feels "subverts civic identity and self-confidence in America's Finest City."
The group aptly condemns the council's ability to overrule funding recommendations of the Commission for Arts and Culture and Mayor Maureen O'Connor's dominant curatorial role in the upcoming arts festival. In their tough portrait of city government's intersection with the local art community, Avalos et al. offer an invigorating antidote to the self-congratulatory rhetoric on the subject that prevails in the media.
Paul Best's hanging scroll rattles the conscience of every viewer, not just the powers that be, with the insistence of its query, "Are Your Hands Clean?" He sets his question within a spiraling text that lists biases, from the big three--racism, sexism and "classism"--to the increasingly minute and seemingly absurd, such as the hatred of people with no ears. Somewhere in this dizzying swirl of text each of us is indicted, confronted with the arbitrary nature of our exclusionary beliefs.
Other, more visually oriented works in the show correspond to critic Lucy Lippard's definition of activist art, by "sneaking subversively into interstices where didacticism and rhetoric can't pass."
Stanley Fried's work, for instance, satirizes the blind patriotism of politicians who wrap themselves in the Stars and Stripes. His witty "National Condom," made of an actual flag, claims to offer protection against "socially and politically transmitted ideas." Stephan Gary's painted wall construction strikes at the improper marriage of money and the ideals of patriotism, freedom and justice that the flag embodies. Gary shows a giant match whose flame is severing that bond.
Through a few simple stabs of his pen, Mike Kelley makes schoolboy jokes out of the heroes and monuments of American history. He vandalizes an image of the Supreme Court, turning it into a reeking outhouse, and, adding his own captions, gives a picture of a meeting between Hamilton and Jefferson a slice of sexual repartee. Kelley goads us to the point of discomfort by drawing a swastika on Lincoln's forehead, all the while encouraging us to disown the voodoo-doll sensibility that causes us to equate a tampered image with actual damage to its referent.
Making this distinction between representation and reality is precisely what Jesse Helms refuses to do, and the freedom to use charged cultural symbols to interpret reality would be lost if his amendment passed. The oppressive state that would result is projected here through images of gagged mouths, burned books, objects tarred and feathered and dissenters burned at the stake.
Many of the seemingly tame works in the show point to the tenuous nature of censorship and ever-shifting "community standards." Hans Burkhardt's stylized crucifixion paintings, deemed unacceptable by conservative viewers of a generation ago, evoke no controversy among those of the present.
Jody Zellen's photo mural, "What Is Legitimate Art?" reminds us that the answer to this question expands and contracts with the political tide. Manet's "Dejeuner sur l'herbe," reproduced in part here, was considered "bizarre and immoral" when it was painted in 1863. Now highly acclaimed, it hangs in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Under his jurisdiction, Sen. Helms would load the painting back on the roller coaster of acceptability, send it down to the museum basement and leave it to another generation to pull it back upstairs.
Such a move would send a devastating blow to the pluralistic art world of the 1980s. "No Stomach," organized by local artists Lynn Engstrom and Gary Ghirardi, with help from Graciela Ovejero, not only mirrors that pluralism but actively defends it as essential to the health and vibrancy of America's cultural life.