A male figure lies supine on bathroom tiling, his head buried in a T-shirt that his uncoordinated limbs cannot wrestle off his body. His shirt is lifted up enough to expose his belly and the line of his boxer shorts, where a friend's socked foot sits, threatening to pin him to the linoleum.
This moment was immortalized in oils by artist Mike Sobeck. Dignity has no color, but that's not why there isn't any to be seen in this painting.
Sobeck says he has hitherto done "serious" portraits and, wanting to try something different, scrolled through his photos of impaired friends at parties for inspiration. This one struck him because it makes the audience wonder about what happens outside the frame, and what events preceded the wardrobe malfunction and teasing threat. That is, if an audience can be made to take time to consider the work.
Fortunately, a venue presented itself. Loren Naji Studio Gallery bills its ongoing Tall Walls exhibition as unjuried and uncensored. Naji invited members of the Cleveland West Art League to submit works that are "edgy, controversial, maybe even politically incorrect."
It is fair to ask, "Why this sauciness, and why now?" Since at least the Renaissance, when the use of nude figure models came back into practice, the art world has been increasingly viewed as a place of more laissez-faire standards than mainstream society. The last century saw the institutionalization of provocation; performance pieces involving public spilling of bodily fluids now provoke eye rolls, not protests.
But this context itself may create a demand for a show like Naji's. Artists approaching topics like sex, drink, drugs and violence are more afraid of being accused of laziness than depravity. A show with the stated purpose of displaying offensive works allows a safe space for artists to gauge just how well their button-pushing pieces work on a non-prurient level. Or, it lets them make dirty jokes without fear of reprisal. Win, win.
The result is an open bar of labels and vintages of naughtiness, which also happen to be deeply personal and deeply weird passion projects.
Joe Ayala pays tribute to one of his favorite horror movies, 1976's Carrie. He appreciates the portrait it paints of Sissy Spacek's title character, both in terms of her emotional texture and the more literal sense of her visual appearance. Ayala singles out the film's "soft" cinematography, which he says casts Spacek in an heavenly glow. However, he paints the actress in maybe the film's most worldly scene, when Carrie undergoes her first period in the shower. Ayala describes the scene as "a horrific intimate moment," and his representation focuses not on the blood but on Spacek's face, stretched as only hers can in confusion and horror.
June Hund's "Sweet Dreams" is one of the only three-dimensional works in the show, and therefore the most tactile—but also the one you want to touch least. It consists of a pillow, deformed by green masking tape wrappings and stuck with hypodermic needles whose entry points ooze with a gluey paste. The stem of a spoon projects from its body, and a bruise-like black stain spreads in the lower right corner. Though "Sweet Dreams" in no way resembles a human form, it provokes feelings of queasiness, horror and pity for the ravages of addiction it alludes to.
David King plays with the opposition of the sacred and the profane. His mixed-media "Jeremiah-Street Saint" presents a slightly pudgy, ginger-bearded man in a white T-shirt aglow with a golden halo. However, there's nothing mystical about the painting—the "halo" is actually a rubbing of a manhole cover in Colorado Springs. Jeremiah is not the prophet, but is also from the Centennial State, where he works as a potter. The "halo," once a symbol of holiness, now is a symbol of democracy. King says "Jeremiah" is one piece in a series which similarly crowns people of every socio-economic strata, from the homeless to sharply dressed businessmen. All have the same dignity of heavenly light, and all the worldly neediness symbolized by the grubby manhole cover.
King also offered one of the best ways to think about the show as a whole. Instead of dismissing these borderline, sometimes experimental works of art, we should be asking what conversation creators were trying to provoke.
"When you have to explain it to more than one person, you know you hit a nerve," says King.