Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Explicit material removed on artistic grounds, not censorship

Artists' Network head defends gallery choices

Robert, by Drasko Bogdanovic, 2011, 14x21, limited edition giclée print. Credit: Drasko Bogdanovic
Russell Brohier, executive director of the Artists’ Network, wrote to Xtra to defend a recent decision to exclude some sexually explicit material from Drasko Bogdanovic’s gallery show Naked Man Staring At You, as well as the decision to paper over the windows of the gallery during the show’s April run. The full text of his letter is presented below.

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None of the decisions made for Naked Man Staring At You, the photography of Drasko Bogdanovic, were made out of censorship. The Artists’ Network is a not-for-profit organization that supports artists in their careers. We do this through networking, holding seminars, programming several exhibition spaces, organizing the Riverdale Art Walk (June 4 and 5) and holding the Little Art Show. The focus of all this is to support the artists and allow them an opportunity to show their work. None of it is censored. Much of it is curated and juried, standard practices in the art world.
 
As the executive director, I am accountable to my board and to our more than 200 members. Yes, the subject matter of Drasko’s work was an initial challenge since Hang Man had not exhibited work of this vein previously. Those initial concerns were laid to rest, but the ideas produced lingered. I am also responsible for carrying out our mandate, and that is to bring ideas to the table of how to best exhibit artwork to support the artist. It does neither the gallery nor the artist a benefit if the work hung on the walls is not cohesive, well presented and complementary to all other images. This is how an exhibition is shaped.
 
Drasko’s work is compelling, and yet it was in the process of finding the images to bring together that several ideas took shape. He presented me with a poster for a show he would like to do: Naked Man Staring At You. This was our pivotal theme. Yet to bring the images together there had to be something more than conformity of size of the image and how it was framed to explore the thematic direction. There is a negotiation between the gallery and the artist as to the images. The exhibition is a collaboration between both. The gallery brings the expertise of what will work based on experience. There is no doubt there are images that Drasko might have liked to see in the show, and there were others that I was surprised he did not produce — such as one of a subject sitting with his hard cock grasped in his hands staring at you. Sometimes the artist’s favourite image doesn’t work with all the others. It is a question of what 14 images will work well together to give each piece strength and yet connect each image to all the others. This is a negotiated process, with give and take on both sides.
 
Through this process I suggested we go back to a traditional photographic method of nudes being presented in black and white. There were several reasons for this decision. First, as a matter of continuity within an exhibition it brings the work together as one body. Secondly, black and white is used not to obscure detail but rather to accent light and form. These two things are seminal for the photography of the body. In comparing some of Drasko’s images, the body blended in with the background in colour photographs, yet in black and white the light was more dramatic, and the forms were highlighted.
 
The first image the visitor sees when walking through the front door of Hang Man is a young man with “FAGGOT” tattooed across his abdomen in gothic lettering. In my opinion, it is a stronger image in black and white. We are drawn to his face, which conveys strength, confidence and comfort in his nakedness as he stares back at you. The colour image read softer. I believe our decision to have the images in black and white strengthened the totality of the exhibition. 
 
You also used the word “edginess.” I am not sure how you are using it, but in the discussion between Drasko and me, he had used the word to describe images where the men had erections or two men were in an embrace and there was sexual energy. Both types of images remain in the show. I am not one to believe that edginess is defined by a hard cock. The edginess is in the expression and the attitudes of the men who were the subjects of these images. Drasko has turned the tables on the viewer. Here is the edginess. Norms of society still see anyone who is naked as “vulnerable” or subordinate, in a state of shame. The traditional oppressive ideologies of religion persist in the norms and values of our society as a whole. There is the notion that so long as you are clothed you are more powerful. This idea is taken to extremes in consumerism and the marketing of labels. Drasko successfully turns that equation around. It is not the naked men who are vulnerable or lacking power. The way they stand, the expressions on their faces, the attitude that exudes from their images often serves to create that vulnerability and diminished power in the response of the viewer. The edginess of the work is in the theme.
 
Finally, you ask about the brown paper that now goes across our windows. Think back to when you were an adolescent and looking up to the magazines behind the brown paper wrappers. Think what it provokes in the male teenager (I can speak only as a male). Was there a sense of curiosity, titillation, of risk and naughtiness and mystique? We often cloak the human body in these ideas. The brown paper across our window is a reference to these feelings and social conditions. It is most blatantly an effort to draw people’s attention, a marketing ploy, for passersby to stop and ask what is behind the paper — to pique their curiosity, to tantalize, to create a mystique. It is so they notice Kyle behind the brown paper, and he further stimulates their curiosity. It is to play on those feelings created when sexuality was not so widely discussed and was hidden away. No, it is not suggesting we go back, but it is trying to encourage people to explore.
 
I hope this answers your questions. I think I have given you a fairly detailed outline of the curatorial process both Drasko and I went through in developing this exhibition. I think Drasko should be proud of his work. I am proud to have played a small role in the direction of the exhibition. The Artists’ Network and Hang Man are very pleased to see Drasko’s work paired with an artist whose aesthetic is similar, yet whose content is significantly different. Janet F Potter is presenting her work in our members’ salon as well. Surprisingly, there is a strange complementary aspect between the two shows.
 
I hope that Naked Man Staring At You gives a good indication of the direction in which Hang Man is going. We look forward to seeing you, not only at our opening but at the events of the Artists’ Network. Should you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me. Thank you once again.
 
Russell Brohier
Executive Director, Artists’ Network
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