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Quiet Censorship

By Steve Ramos · October 19th, 2005 · Arts Beat
  Pulled from display at UC: Rhonda Gushee's
Pulled from display at UC: Rhonda Gushee's "Friends Forever"

University Hall is arguably the quietest building on the University of Cincinnati campus. At least it's quiet enough to hear my shoes squeak while I walk the halls.

There are few visitors to the plush brick building, home to the UC architecture office and charitable foundation, tucked near the hospital buildings alongside the College of Nursing. Only staffers who work in University Hall come and go on a regular basis.

Yet artists compete for the chance to display work in its brightly lit hallways, corner sitting areas and elevator lobbies. Any chance to show work publicly, even in a space with as few passersby as University Hall, is welcome for artists with few opportunities.

There are good works on display there as part of the Shape, Form Texture and Color exhibition, pieces worth the trip and a walk across Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Two large steel and wood sculptures by veteran sculptor Paige Wideman fill the building's lobby. Worn planks of wood and large metal bolts make up "JFG." Four long brown wooden beams connected to each other by six rusting metal bars make up "nine."

The work is peaceful, soothing and entirely abstract -- meaning they're not at all offensive.

Upstairs, the abstract wall sculptures by artist Denny Means continue to hang alongside wall phones and water fountains. What has been refused for display is his figurative piece, "We Two," depicting a naked couple embracing.

The image has the roughhewn quality of a folk art sketch, not the least bit graphic. Yet this simple image of love, arguably a half-nude at best, was deemed inappropriate for the building's workers.

Just as ridiculous is the censored sculpture "Friends Forever" by local artist Rhonda Gushee. The elaborate installation involved a four-poster bed of painted wood, one of Gushee's trademark Raku clay doll-like sculptures and two toys linked to its wrists; it occupied a corner space outside two training rooms before being removed by a building administrator.

The ceramic baby is lifelike in size and appearance. Its gray coloring, a handiwork of the Raku smoking fire technique, separates it from the realm of the living. The mattress provides a simple white backdrop. The work is intentionally stark, unearthly even -- but not offensive.

Yet soon after the exhibition's start, the ceramic child and its toys were removed from view and stored in a nearby office, waiting for Gushee to come and retrieve them. All that's left for people to see are the wooden bed and a box where a mattress should be. Days later, the entire work has been removed, leaving a bare spot surrounded by more cheerful works.

There are other Raku clay child-like sculptures by Gushee on display. The eeriest is "Ambivalent," located on the sixth floor, an infant clad in a dominatrix leather suit.

The history behind University Hall as an arts space is mixed. Photographer Bill Davis had problems there in 2001 focused on two works depicting nudity. "Admonition," which showed a hand reaching out between the legs of a nude female, was pulled down for being too graphic.

But there is nothing graphic about Gushee's or Means' sculptures. To their eyes -- to anyone's eyes -- the work is appropriate for public display. Means has taken his piece to gallery openings to shock friends with what others deem offensive. His argument is that, if his work can be refused for the walls of University Hall, it's hard to accept that any artwork is safe from censorship.

Many of the remaining works along the building's hallways are pop arts bangles and baubles, bright, cheery and colorful shapes. Perhaps the danger is that Means and Gushee attempt to tell a story with their works. Their offense is that they want to engage passersby, not just entertain them.

Means plans an art show with the theme Someone Might Complain, a collection of work that's been banned before or could well be banned. Of course he needs to find a venue willing to show such work.

It used to be that only graphic sexuality caused uproars. Means and Gushee realize that anything can be pulled off walls if one person considers it offensive -- no matter what the reason.

Contact steve ramos: sramos(at)citybeat.com


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