-- "Town Talk," Southwest City Journal, April 4
MUCH ADO ABOUT LITTLE: St. Louis, they say, is really just a "big" small town. News spreads quick, rumors and half-truths even quicker. You can be sitting, say, at the Way Out Club, minding your own business on a Saturday night, when a story arrives from two miles north, roaring straight down Compton Avenue: The Midtown Arts Center has been raided by city cops, and they're taking down photos by Washington University students! Wow! That's news!
What transpired at the Midtown wasn't exactly that. In fact, a Wash. U. B.F.A. exhibit was taking place there, as was a fashion show sponsored by Intermission magazine, plus the opening of a one-woman show by 21-year-old Kristen Blinne, who would enjoy a thoroughly active weekend.
In the loosely dubbed Midtown "contemporary" gallery -- one of seven exhibition spaces in the building, curated by four volunteer coordinators -- Blinne had assembled a show, Inner Landscapes, focusing on a topic that many young women artists have approached from various angles, sometimes from this exact angle: a heavy, overt anti-rape theme, with lingerie hanging from the ceiling and provocative sloganeering scrawled on the walls by visitors ("skirt," "slut," "whore"), with a few graphic objects and pieces of photography making up the balance. Subtlety was not in evidence.
What became controversial was one specific work, titled "Female Genital Mutilation," which comprised, primarily, two photos of an ... er ... um ... vulva, each hand-stitched to represent "a cruel, painful procedure ... is practiced in many countries in Africa and the Middle East in an effort to insure a woman's chastity."
Jeannette Apperson, executive director of the Midtown, asked that the piece be removed from the show. Blinne accepted the request, briefly, until she talked to curator Mallarie Zimmer (who edits Intermission, which is also housed in the Midtown). They agreed that the integrity of the show would be damaged if the piece came down. "Female Genital Mutilation" was rehung, only to be taken down 30 minutes into the show by Apperson, who locked the work in her office. In short order: Emotions ran hot; the city's finest arrived on the scene but disappeared an hour later without making any arrests or confiscating any artwork; and, after some delay, the piece went back up.
Later that night, Apperson gave her account while picking up trash in the main hall, a Phish-style jam band holding forth onstage.
"It's a family-oriented arts center," she said. "I felt this particular piece was not OK to show. I thought the whole exhibit was borderline. It gives a very provocative statement, but it isn't appropriate here." To that end, a sign went up before the show, in the afternoon, saying that show was "R-rated," per her request.
Curiously for the director of a nonmainstream arts center, Apperson freely says that she's "not an artist" and is "very conservative," but maintains that the crisis brewed solely as a result of Blinne's saying that she would ixnay the piece, only to have Zimmer insist that it should go back up. "She agreed to pull the piece and show the signs," said Apperson. It was Apperson who eventually called the police, when, she said, "things escalated. The two artists were yelling at me. The two mothers were screaming at me. I told them, 'You can't stay here and yell.'" (Witnesses gave different accounts of who was fanning the flames; both Lynette Blinne, Kristen's mother, and Apperson were tabbed as instigators by some in attendance.)
Though people were eventually able to see the show intact -- the police suggested that everyone leave and did escort a couple of folks from the Midtown before the space reopened -- all involved were showing the strain of the evening the next day. While a wedding reception was held in the main hall on Sunday, a sign on the Midtown's front door said, "Exhibits closed due to illness."
Though closed, the exhibit was drawing plenty of attention. The TV crews -- apparently freed from an afternoon of fires and shootings -- showed up Sunday, and Blinne got some sound bites on the local news. Radio interviews would follow. Emergency board meetings were called and the occasional argument broke out in the hallway. Blinne's mother held court on censorship conspiracies, giving an earful to anyone who'd listen.
No shortage of subtexts emerged, including whether the Intermission staff would feel comfortable staying in the building, considering Zimmer's dual role in the affair. And then there was the issue of Art Attack, the twice-failed West End gallery that's taken up both space and influence in the Midtown.
"I can't believe one picture would cause so much controversy," says Blinne. "I forget I live in Missouri sometimes."
More gruesome than pornographic, Blinne's work probably could've been shown at the nearby HotHouse space with little uproar. Another show, also curated by Zimmer, opened in the downtown space last Friday, one night before the Midtown fiasco. The all-woman show, titled Venus Envy, highlighted the work of 11 women artists, with more than enough material to offend the squeamish, including a 3-foot-high depiction of an ... er ... um ... well ... vulva. It's said that 300 folks attended and no one complained.
Lost in the hubbub are a variety of points. For one thing, Blinne's piece had already been sold, with the money going to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network; all proceeds from her show were slated for charity. For another, the Midtown features an interesting, quirky series of spaces, and such an uproar may actually focus some positive attention on the site, which, for the record, receives only a small amount of state funding. One could also make the case that the center should've had clearer policies on the edginess of the work it displays: Apperson was put off not only by Blinne's work but by some of the Wash. U. photos, one series of which was shifted into a less visible hallway. The notion of this building as a family arts center, as Apperson puts it, is debatable; some of the low-level politics in the building seem to be bubbling to the surface.
Perhaps Blinne will use the incident as an opportunity to grow as an artist; after all, the sight of er ... um ... vulvas in modern galleries isn't all that shocking these days. Whether her work ever lands her on the evening news again, well, that'll depend on fires and shootings, of course.
(Postscript: Monday evening, the board of the Midtown Arts Center met. The show will stay up through May 5. Apperson quit as executive director. And Zimmer feels that Intermission will continue to be a part of the space: "Things will hopefully be a lot more peaceful now.")
FUN WITH NUMBERS: Mike Chesnut -- the would-be Libertarian member of the city's most august body, profiled in this space last week -- surpassed his own predictions, capturing 70 votes in the 16th Ward aldermanic race after saying that 50-55 votes would make him happy. Unfortunately, the city's most heavily voting ward came out in numbers. Incumbent Democrat James Shrewsbury captured just under 4,000 votes, with Republican challenger Matt Hoffman landing 1,350. But 70 is more than 55 any day of the year. No question.
THE BRAND-NEW "HIT PARADE" TOP SEVEN: The top seven things that approximate the width of Channel 4's Steve Savard's neck:
7. An elephant
6. A fire truck
5. Orlando Pace's thigh
4. Kevin Slaten's ego
3. The line at Cheetah Club
2. A Hot Locust burrito
1. Chris Heinrich's shoe
"HIT PARADE" HAIKU: This haiku thing is taking the town by storm, just as the wildly popular anagrams section did before. In fact, the minimalist poetry is now being called the "CNN of the streets," and for good reason. This week's haikus come compliments of "Toledo Dave," a former poster on the once-entertaining Postnet "Press Box." Thank'ee for the input, Toledo!
T. Crone rides K-Fans
Yup, "No question about it"
Thinks he's Richard Byrne
Hair Saloon for Men
Super Smokers, blah blah blah
Please punch Rob Fischer
E-mail tips, quips and haikus to Thomas_Crone@rftstl.com.