How explicit is too explicit for a small town art gallery? Hint: it begins with a V and ends in gina.

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Vankleek Hill has a long history with naked people. Especially in our art.

For the past five years, the Arbor Gallery has exhibited an annual Valentine’s Day show specifically featuring erotic art in something we like to call ‘The Eros Show‘.

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In 2011, for example, we featured three paintings from Edwina Billyk, called “Seated nude male,” “Homo erectus et ludens,” and “Homo erectus”. All three featured realistic nude male figures, on blue backgrounds, lounging around… lets say, very comfortably.

Galleries in Vankleek Hill, including ours, have never shied away from exhibiting nudes, especially during the early years of our famous annual Vankleek Hill May Art Festival. From 1982 until (roughly) 1992, Vankleek Hill’s galleries had many erotic aspects to their shows, including Donald Liardi’s nude sculptures, and Susan Jephcott’s paintings… all of which either involve nudity, or make you feel like you should be naked. John Greewald’s paintings are another example of how accepting gallery visitors have been to exhibiting nudity in our local galleries.

Basically, what I’m trying to say, is there have been no uprisings. I can’t even remember a letter to the editor ever having been written — or, at least, published — regarding anyone’s morals being offended by any art featuring totally exposed, or engorged… pieces.

…of course, maybe the people who might complain just don’t bother showing up (I prefer to think they all just moved away back in 1983 when it became evident our artistic community wasn’t going to stop with the naked stuff).

But this year was different. This year’s Eros Show featured nudes by Erica Taylor — including her ‘Silver Streak Penis Car‘ sculpture, as well as John Greenwald’s work, and Susan Jephcott’s paintings shown openly on our walls. But the photography of newcomer, Roy Whidden, caused Jessica Sarrazin, the Arbor Gallery’s Artistic Director, to rethink some of our policies.

Most of Roy’s photos chosen for exhibition at this years were back lit black & white nudes of a woman’s lower torso. But three of his works caused Jessica some apprehension about displaying them in their full glory.

Jessica’s position with the Gallery allows her to chose which shows go ahead, and she has the final decision on what gets displayed. But, for Roy’s work, she asked the Arbor Gallery’s Board of Directors for their comments and opinions:

“I think [Roy’s] work is strong and interesting. It’s formally very accomplished but it’s also much more explicit than anything I’ve ever shown at Eros. Even more than the paintings I’ve shown by Edwina Billyk. In a way, it was only a matter of time before I received a submission like this.”

She went on to make a few points in favour of showing Roy’s work:

I think there should be some room in this show for images that make you feel uncomfortable, which is what these images do to me.

I don’t want to say that Vankleek Hill can’t handle these images. Declining to show them… [would] feel like we’d be going backwards. If they were violent, misogynist or offensive in another way, I’d decline. But I feel that they are graphically strong images, made by someone who really knows his technique and is pushing the limits of his work.

The Board’s response was fairly unanimous:

“…the use of light and the very unusual, intimate look at the female body, nothing violent or shocking, very little eroticism, almost abstract and minimal. It would be interesting if we get more comments than usual and see how people react to the fact that they had a choice to use this technology to view the work, and see how they react to the artistic merit of the images. After all provocative images in the art world will cause reactions and could open up doors to more creative and bold initiatives, otherwise things get stale and don’t lead to the advancement of Art.”
— Jean Clermont, Arbor Gallery – CfCA, BoD

We ended up exhibiting them, but only hidden behind a ‘QR’ code (basically a product code that can be read by a ‘smart phone’) that was hung on the wall. If someone wanted to view the actual photographs in their original size, and the manner Roy wanted them displayed, they would be taken to another room for a private viewing — it’s important to state that Roy was aware of all of this, and agreed to the process.

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This was the first time we’ve ever exhibited art this way… so, what made these three images different / more graphic than Erica Taylor’s ‘Elbows 1′ and ‘Elbows 2‘ or Donald Liardi’s ‘Night’ statue or most of Susan’s work or John Greenwald’s paintings?

“The reason these works needed special treatment in how we displayed them is because the reality of photographic images, as compared to the human body represented in painting, is that the sensation is so immediate. You feel as if you are there, staring at this person’s body-parts, and you don’t really notice the intermediary presence of the photographer until after you have grasped what you are looking at and you start to notice the formal qualities – it’s black & white, the framing and the way the image was composed, the lighting etc..

“When you view a painting, you are always aware of the painter because of the obvious touch of someone’s hand in creating the image. Also, I don’t think I would display any of the works you describe using a QR code. A photograph lends itself pretty well to viewing on a screen. You lose less of the image than if you’re looking at a photograph of a painting on a screen, where the difference between the painting in life and the jpeg can be really dramatic.”
— Jessica Sarrazin, Artistic Director, Arbor Gallery – CfCA

For those of us not carrying one,random 001 there was a ‘smart phone’ available for the Eros Show, and there were no protests, no weird looks, just a few shrugged shoulders, and some admiration for the work itself (even in its tiny format). Susan Jephcott commented that she was expecting something from a hardcore porn or Hustler. So, in the end, the result of using the QR code seemed solely to heighten the ‘naughty’ factor of the three photos.

…there were also warnings placed on the door, and beneath the QR codes, letting people know there were explicit works in the show, which might have helped divert some of the crowd away from the NSFW aspect of the show.

Given the opportunity, Jessica believes she would make the same decision again.

“While I was trying to solve this dilemma, I noticed an article in the Review about one of Vankleek Hill’s church groups. I kept thinking that I could not turn down these works on the basis that they were too explicit – that seemed like I didn’t have confidence in the gallery’s audience. But the reality of Vankleek Hill is, last time I counted, there are nine churches. And some of those viewers are just a little more conservative in what they want to view. I didn’t didn’t want to alienate anyone coming into the gallery, especially people who might be visiting us for the first time.”

This years Eros Show was among the most popular events the Arbor Gallery has exhibited.

If you have a ‘smart phone’, these are the ‘QR codes’ for Roy’s hidden photos… unless your boss is really, really cool, they’re probably NSFW. If you’re interested in purchasing one, or all three, you can contact Roy through his website.

Let us know what you think of the decision — agree, disagree? — or how we went about it…


About Gabriel

I’ve lived in more than fifty places. I've been paid to pick stones out of fields, take backstage photos of Britney Spears, and report on Internet privacy issues. My photos have been published in several newspapers, and a couple of magazines.
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