At first glance, the region's first-ever collection of censored artworks, opening tonight in Baltimore, seems to lack an essential ingredient: shock value. Most of the nudes are no racier than Botticelli's "Venus" or Michelangelo's "David."
But viewers may well be shocked, amused or disturbed to learn what happened when these artists from the mid-Atlantic region tried to exhibit their works at colleges and in courthouses.
A painting of a nude man was hidden in a closet by Howard County school officials. An Alexandria artist who photographed her unclothed infant daughter had her children taken away briefly. Knife-wielding officials, who couldn't quite bring themselves to remove the entire penis on an outdoor sculpture in Arlington County, settled for lopping off the final inch of it.
"I'm afraid people who come expecting to be shocked or titillated are going to be disappointed," said Pat A. Creswell, executive director of the BAUhouse Gallery. "But when they read what happened -- mostly within the last couple of years -- they will be really bowled over."
The 30 works in the show, "Censored/Censured," were brought together by Baltimore artists upset about recent attempts by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and others to prevent the National Endowment for the Arts from using government funds to support controversial artists.
The censors said they found many of the works satanic, sexist, racist or disrespectful to the flag, religion and the U.S. system of justice. Several pieces offended by addressing the issue of child abuse or by depicting genitalia.
The works were banned from places including Catonsville Community College, the Bank of Baltimore and the Fairfax County Courthouse.
Creswell said she was inspired to put the show together after a panel discussion on grantsmanship with recipients of fellowships from the Maryland State Arts Council. The young artists were upset, not only by national controversies involving artists such as the late Robert Mapplethorpe, but local incidents, such as the banning of paintings by two Montgomery County teenagers from a Baltimore County government building.
"The climate now is even more prudish, more restrictive and more repressive than it was 20 years ago," said Richard Kirstel, a Baltimore photographer harking back to his censorship battle with Towson State College in the early 1970s, the oldest case included in the show.
The multidisciplinary BAUhouse receives no NEA funds. That, Creswell said, gives it more freedom to embrace controversy.
The only possible trouble organizers foresee might come from a piece painted by a New York artist in tribute to three friends who died of AIDS. When the artwork, which includes a nude man in an obvious state of arousal, was painted in June onto the window of a Richmond gallery, the city prosecutor ordered it covered up.
A federal judge ultimately ruled that the work was not obscene, but not before the artwork caused an uproar. Gallery officials had covered the window with paper. Activists had torn the paper away and scrawled "Silence=Death."
The artist, Carlos Gutierrez-Solana, is painting the same piece on a BAUhouse window. "My reaction to their overreaction is that it's become very much a part of the piece," he wrote. "The piece is about intolerance. It's about grief. It's about rage."
Such statements, as well as a set of press clippings, accompany each piece in the show, which runs through Oct. 5. Some of the cases are well documented, such as the events that followed Kirstel's efforts to hang his photographs celebrating heterosexual and lesbian lovemaking.
Towson State officials told him a day before he was to hang the show that it was too explicit. Kirstel hung it anyway and found himself spending eight hours in jail.
The case made waves from the Manhattan art world to downtown Towson, where art students paraded with copies of Kirstel's works.
Visitors to the BAUhouse show will be able to judge Kirstel's work for themselves. Similarly, they will be able to see what use Alexandria artist Alice Sims made of the nude photographs she took of her infant daughter. "Water Babies" is a dreamy montage of infants floating among lily pads and rushes.
In the summer of 1988, Sims's photographs were seized by Alexandria police, acting on a complaint from a photo lab. Police said the pictures violated Virginia obscenity laws and could be evidence of child abuse. Child Protective Services workers, who took Sims's two children away for a day, conducted a three-week investigation before allowing the artist and her husband to retain custody of their children.
Other cases are not well known. Painter Barbara Denrich, for instance, went to the Howard County Board of Education building in 1989 and found that her "White Statue on Red" had been hidden in a storage closet. School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey had deemed the fauvist-style rendering of an anatomically correct plaster statue "inappropriate" for the building.
"It's not censorship; it's just looking out for our employees," said school spokesman Patti Vierkant. "Some people just were not comfortable having nudes displayed."
If the generals in the censorship war have been people such as Helms and Mapplethorpe, the foot soldiers are people such as Denrich and Hickey. Their trenches are places such as Easton, Md., where residents condemned Robert Clements for his whimsical satire on the persistent rumor that Proctor and Gamble is a front for devil worshipers.
Letters to the Easton Star-Democrat branded Clements's work, part of the BAUhouse show, "a trip to Hades."
Perhaps the oddest and most emotionally charged censorship act in the show is the one involving the outdoor sculpture by Cheryl Casteen and Charles Flickinger in Arlington County's Bluemont Park. The work consisted of a reclining male figure, made of potting soil, acrylic and chicken wire, who reached to touch the hand of a prostrate woman.
County officials said they didn't realize the figures would be anatomically correct and encouraged Rita Bartolo, director of the park's sculpture project, to do something about it. Finally, with park official Stan Ernst urging her on, Bartolo did.
"Stan had this knife, and I was afraid he'd just butcher it," Bartolo said at the time. "So I took the knife and cut off about an inch."
Photos of the work, before and after surgery, are on display at BAUhouse.
Ernst said recently that Bartolo was not pressured and that the figure was altered in hopes of making it more "anatomically generic" and less offensive.
"It was a well-endowed male," he added. "No doubt about it."