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Crocheted Nudes Cause Brows to Knit

By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 23, 2005

Nude sculptures, done in crochet. Sound intriguing? Well, you're too late to see them -- at least not in the crocheted altogether.

The 15-artist exhibition "Not the Knitting You Know" opened last week downtown at Eleven Eleven Sculpture Space. But within two days, the crocheted breasts and genitals of the large, colorful figures in two of the four works created by Ming-Yi Sung were covered by crocheted fig leaves -- plus one crocheted codpiece that actually looks like a cod.

A sense of humor helps, after all, when you're being censored.

You see, the gallery is also the lobby of the 14-story office tower leased by the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. When developers renovated the building in 2002, zoning requirements called for an arts component, which Eleven Eleven Sculpture Space fulfills.

Anyone can go the gallery's exhibits, but the most frequent visitors are the law firm employees who traipse through the lobby every day. The firm objected to Sung's work and complained to building management the day the exhibition opened. Shorenstein Realty Services then contacted Binnie Fry, Eleven Eleven's manager and curator, and told her to remove the exhibit. (Shorenstein owns the building and contracts with Fry to run the gallery.)

"In a traditional gallery, a person can choose to go in," says Stan Roualdes, Shorenstein's director of property management. "But people who work there don't have that choice."

John Shenefield, a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, says that when he first saw Sung's work that Monday morning, "I thought instantly that there will be women in this organization who will be offended because of the exposed genitalia and the exaggeration of the female form." His fears were confirmed as soon as he got to his office: People were discussing the exhibition in a "beehive of activity . . . and the initial reaction was quite a lot of unhappiness, particularly among female employees and partners." The firm was also concerned about offending clients and visitors who might assume it sponsors the exhibition.

Fry was told the work had to be removed after the opening reception two days later. She scrambled to come up with an alternative -- aha, fig leaves! -- and everyone agreed to the compromise. Changes were made the next day.

"I'm a very fast crocheter," Sung says.

Shenefield says this is the first time the firm has complained about an exhibition and that the "shock effect" of Sung's art in its original form should have precluded its installation. "Common sense would suggest that perfectly normal human beings would rather not face that," he says.

Fry has managed Eleven Eleven Sculpture Space for a year, and she found Sung's work "playful" enough that she didn't anticipate it would be a problem. "When you have issues of censorship, people get very upset," but Fry says she's sympathetic to the law firm's concerns about offensive content.

Sung, 32, who studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art and is an elementary school art teacher in Montgomery County, says she "didn't think twice" about how her work might offend people. "It's just like displaying a marble nude figure," she says. "I'm just expressing my own artistry. I thought it would be interesting for the crowd."

Some in the crowd felt differently. "I'm not an art critic," Shenefield says, "but none of this was the Venus de Milo."

Sung says she was initially angry about the prospect of her work being removed or having to alter it, but she decided that the exposure was worth censoring her work. Ultimately, she says, "I just thought it was really funny that people are bothered by it."

Actually, you can still see a few breasts on display, along with the other alternative knit creations. Fry says that in the rush to respond to the law firm's complaint, there was a miscount on offending body parts in Sung's work: "We ran out of extra fig leaves."

Not the Knitting You Know: Sculptural Knitting and Crochet at Eleven Eleven Sculpture Space, 1111 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, through Sept. 10. Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Call 703-790-9018 or visit http://eleveneleven.50webs.com .

© 2005 The Washington Post Company