Another chapter in the history of censorship in public institutions was written last week when, after complaints by volunteer staffers, the curator of the Historic Arkansas Museum decided to remove three paintings by Warren Criswell from a solo show of his work in the Trinity Gallery.
The offending paintings included nudes. “Vanishing Point,” a painting of a man falling out of bed and into the ocean, reveals the man’s buttocks and a tiny bit of genitalia. The suggestion of coitus, Swannee Bennett said, was the offense in a couple of Criswell’s “Phantom” paintings, both of which show nude female apparitions hovering over a man in his bed.
Bennett, deputy director and chief curator, who made the decision to pull the paintings, said the HAM needed to be sensitive to its visitors’ sensibilities. The museum receives state funds, and taxpayers are its patrons. He acknowledged that the move might be seen as a step on a slippery slope, but said he does not intend to make a habit of pulling works from shows.
Criswell was not happy that his paintings had been removed, he confirmed in a phone interview. However, because work shown at HAM sells, and because the exhibit will feature Criswell’s first animated work — a man walking under a branch while a crow flutters overhead — he decided not to pull all the work. He may be mollified by the fact that Bennett intends to buy some of Criswell’s work for the HAM’s collection. “Our policy,” Bennett said, “is to buy something from every exhibit” in the Trinity Gallery, which features contemporary art by Arkansans.
It’s not uncommon for public institutions to debate what’s appropriate for their galleries. A couple of more notorious instances: Townsend Wolfe, as director of the Arkansas Arts Center years ago, threw his raincoat over a nude statue after visitors protested, and once was asked to remove from an exhibit a photograph of female buttocks being tickled with a feather.
Anyone who’s ever been to a show of Criswell’s has seen the artist’s backside, as it is a frequent element in his work, and those who go to the HAM show, which is up now but doesn’t open officially until Oct. 14, will get to again. “Flash Flood” shows Criswell hoofing it in a storm with a Superman suit wadded up in his arms. A lovelier derriere also made the cut, in “Departure of the Muse,” a painting of a woman leaving a room via a window.
A reception for “Warren Criswell: MOVES” is set for 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 14, with live music by Parachute Woman. The show will run through Jan. 15.
Back-to-back exhibits at Hearne Fine Art Gallery are top-notch shows that feature a Little Rock artist who’s moved to New York in search of fame, and a famous artist coming, finally, to Little Rock after several years of Garbo Hearne’s entreaties.
Larry Hampton, in this third exhibit at Hearne, is showing small oils in a show he calls “My Lineage.” A 6½-by-9 inch painting by the same name shows a floor scattered with art books, the one in the foreground titled “Velasquez.” Hampton’s accompanying statement adds Sargent, Degas and Rembrandt as his muses. He might have added Bonnard; his “Sitting on the Wall” recalls the French artist’s love for the distant, light-spilling rectangle — in Hampton’s, the light comes from a partially open bathroom door and reaches down the hallway.
Our favorite is singularly Hampton: “People in Park” is a 5¾” by 11¾” scene of a circular brick-lain New York intersection. The curve of the bricks leads the eye to a cluster of small figures in the background at what looks like a subway stop; a tall building partially obscured by flumes of steam is behind them. It is fluid, centered and layered in a palette of rainy day colors and in league with a piece he exhibited in his first show at Hearne, of a street protest of the police killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999.
Hampton’s work goes down Oct. 5. The next day, an exhibit of expressionist lithographs, monoprints and oils by Samella Lewis, an artist Hearne has wanted to show for some time, goes up. Lewis’ work is in such prominent collections as those of the Metropolitan Museum, the Hampton University Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Getty Center for the History of Art in the Humanities. But she is perhaps best known as a historian of African American art. The University of California Press published her revised edition of “African American Art and Artists” in 2004, and she’s published books about her mentor, the famed sculptor Elizabeth Catlett; contemporary Caribbean art and children’s art books. She was a co-founder of the magazine “International Review of African American Art.”
A reception for Lewis is set for 5 p.m. Oct. 14, and she will give a talk that evening. At 2 p.m. Oct. 15, Lewis will give a lecture, “History of African American Art,” at the Arkansas Arts Center. Her show at Hearne runs through Nov. 7.