Nothing like a little controversy to get the public's attention. Attendance went up this week at the Cypress College Fine Arts Gallery after news broke that college officials had pulled a Rafael Serrano photograph from an exhibit flyer because of fears that its phallic symbolism would offend some people.
A news story on the situation was published Wednesday; gallery director Robert Hardy said he saw about 30 visitors in the gallery on Thursday, a high number for what is normally a slow day. "I did notice that staff members from across the campus came by," Hardy said. "That never happens."
Hardy added that it is "unfortunate" that it takes a controversy to increase gallery attendance. Robert Johnson, the Cypress College photo instructor who curated the exhibit, said he has noted no other fallout from the controversy.
Serrano himself spoke at the college Thursday but mentioned the flyer controversy only in passing when he showed a slide of the disputed work, "Panorama/Day." He described the image as "quite beautiful, actually, and certainly not in bad taste, if you ask me."
The work and others in Serrano's "Fertility of War" series remain on view at Cypress College through Nov. 16. Two other artists in the exhibit, Sheila Pinkel and Charlene Knowlton, also spoke Thursday before an audience of about 70.
"Panorama/Day" was pulled from the flyer, which was sent to the school's general mailing list, at the request of college President Kirk Avery. The blank space left on the flyer as a result of the last-minute decision was outlined in dashes with one sentence inside: "This work is unique, but may be considered offensive to some."
Serrano, who is from Los Angeles, labeled the act censorship and an example of "American-style fundamentalism." (Serrano is no relation to Andres Serrano, whose "Piss Christ," a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine, was a focus of recent congressional attempts to regulate the content of federally funded art.)
Rafael Serrano said Thursday that he was trained as a painter and began working with photography about four years ago. He showed slides of a series called "Urban Caves," shots of graffiti-splattered pedestrian tunnels under freeways late at night.
He sometimes lit the scenes with fire, "creating a ritual as I photographed" and dramatizing a connection he perceives between the works and the Paleolithic cave paintings of France and Spain.
The "Urban Caves" series led to his "Fertility of War" photographs, in which he shot tiny model landscapes that combined the symbols of early cave paintings with images of modern weaponry and phallic symbolism, in what he calls an exploration of patriarchy and male aggression.
"I decided to bring my caves home with me, so to speak," Serrano said. "To me, they're like movie sets--miniature movie sets. . . . They fulfill my fantasies of being a film maker." He also said they made him "feel like an explorer, creating my own kind of archeological diggings."
Since completing the widely shown "Fertility of War" series almost three years ago, Serrano said, he has returned to painting. He showed several slides of his recent work, which continues developing some of the themes in his photographs. It too is inspired in part by the ancient cave painters, and delves heavily into symbolic male and female imagery.
An exhibition of photography by Rafael Serrano, Charlene Knowlton and Sheila Pinkel continues through Nov. 16 in the Fine Arts Gallery at Cypress College, 9200 Valley View St., Cypress. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Admission: free. Information: (714) 826-2220.