It only took one anonymous, outraged parent to turn a recent group show at Torrance Art Museum into a controversial art event. "Reverb: Music as Both Inspiration & Content in Contemporary Art" isn't the sort of subject matter that would normally fuel ire. Someone, however, took issue with Inglewood-based artist Steven Bankhead's contribution to the show. Called Fuck Forever, the painting (above) features the title in bold letters across a large canvas.
The f-word had the anonymous outraged parent running to South Bay newspaper, the Daily Breeze, where he criticizes the art and the museum.
"That's very inappropriate when you're bringing your kids, teenagers, to a so-called art museum and you have to be exposed to that," he tells reporter Nick Green in the article, "Obscenity or Artwork at Torrance Museum.
Bankhead, the artist, didn't anticipate this kind of reaction. "I'm kind of astounded that this is going on," he says in a recent phone conversation with L.A. Weekly. "Here we are, 2014, you can see the f-word anywhere. There is no hiding from it."
For some, though, fuck is still a dirty word regardless of context or intent.
Bankhead is an artist with a handful of solo shows, and lots of group exhibitions, to his credit. He's also an instructor at Otis College of Art & Design. Music has inspired some of his previous efforts. In 2009, he had a solo show called "Pretty Vacant," a nod to the Sex Pistols song of the same name, in Munich. Fuck Forever is another Sex Pistols reference, one that specifically points to a a poster made by Jamie Reid. It also appropriates the title of a song by Babyshambles. The song was chart hit in the U.K.
"There's kind of a double entendre happening," says Bankhead of the phrase. It could be a fuck that's synonymous with sex. It could be a fuck that's dismissive of time. Bankhead liked that open-ended interpretation.
The words, he notes, are written in flowers. "I thought that using flowers was appropriate because it was a slightly romantic notion in both of those things," the flowers and the sentiment of the words, he says.
Eve Rappoport is the Cultural Services Division manager for the City of Torrance, the department that oversees the museum. "We have a policy that kind of explains what we do and what the staff will do if we have work that we're showing that we feel may be offensive to some members of the community," she says.
Rappoport says their policy usually extends to works that involve nudity or "something really graphic." She stresses that it's similar to what you'll see at other museums and galleries. "Frankly," she says by phone, "we did not think that this piece fell into that category."
The exhibition had been open for about a month at the free museum before the complaint. By that time, an estimated 600-plus people had checked out the works.
Once the complaint was aired, the museum did add a warning sign near Bankhead's painting. "Now we know that there's this one person that got upset by it and there may be somebody else," says Rappoport.
Since then, more have stopped by Torrance Art Museum, and no one else has complained. "Reverb" closes on March 8.
According to the Daily Breeze story, the outraged parent was at the museum with his daughter when he was offended. But Rappoport is wondering if the parent in the story is the same as another man who came by himself. Two weeks before the Daily Breeze story, Rappoport heard from a colleague that a man had complained about a piece of art inside the museum. The man did not leave a name or phone number. Rappoport followed up with one of the volunteer docents. According to Rappoport, the docent had walked around the exhibition with a man who had a "very strong, negative reaction" to Fuck Forever. The man told the docent that he would not bring his child to the museum, and the man had threatened to make a call to the press.
"If they had left a name and number, we would have called the person and at least tried to have a conversation with them, find out exactly what the issue is and explain why it's there," Rappoport says. "There's a reason the work is there. He may not like it, which is fine. At least they would understand that it was done responsibly and with a reason."
Bankhead especially disagreed with the parent's comment in the article that the work does not count as art. "Art is the conversation that an inanimate object brings to the table. It's the conversation that it makes," he says. "The fact that they responded to it at all, that, to me, is art, not just the painting on the wall. The viewer completes the work."
He adds, "I don't think they understand art, personally."
The show hasn't suffered since the article. In fact, the museum has reaped the benefits of minor controversy. "There certainly are people who have come in to see what the hullabaloo is about," says Rappoport.
As for Bankhead, he's inspired by the comments. The artists mentions a quote in the original article where the anonymous person says that someone who views Fuck Forever as art must have a "jaundiced eye." Says Bankhead, "I think for sure that's going to be the title of my next show."
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