Intermission during a play at Pioneer Memorial Theatre: A man, mid-60s, bends over a sculpture made of clay and collected trash. The work is situated on the floor of the Loge Gallery (the hall outside the theater). "What's this supposed to be?" he says, scratching his head.
His bejeweled female companion says, "Oh my heck." She checks the title card on the wall. "It says here it's called, `Earth Zits.' I guess it's something about the earth, you think?"The man rubs his chin, puzzled. "It looks like a garbage dump."
His companion, finding the man's comment witty, pats him on the arm and says, "Oh, Ervil."
While admittedly exaggerated and stereotypical, this exchange demonstrates that some art - either by reason of its subject matter, the technique by which it was created or by the venue selected to display it - is difficult for many to understand and therefore accept.
Historically, modernism and nudity in art has created most of the art-related tension in Utah.
In an effort to clarify the reasons behind the controversies - and wishing to present an unbiased and factual chronicle of the disputes - Will South, research curator for the Utah Museum of Fine Art, has put together "Making Waves: Controversial Art in Utah." The exhibit opens at the Salt Lake Art Center Oct. 17 and will run through Jan. 11, 1998.
"When writing the history of the Salt Lake Art Center, I decided to list every show they ever did from 1931 to the present," South explained. "During the research, I kept coming across these various controversies because the Art Center was often involved."
As the incidents of controversy continued to grow, South thought it might be interesting to someday do an exhibit related to the subject. He began collecting newspaper and magazine reviews and articles about the controversial shows. In the six years it's taken to get the exhibit funded, South has amassed quite an archive.
Some of the more recent controversial artworks that will share the spotlight in the exhibit are: Trevor Southey's "Flight Aspiration," the commissioned airport mural that some found offensive; the billboard for the Lady Utes Gymnastics Team that was accused of treating women as mere sex objects; and the nude painting by Sam Collett, "Title, Date Medium," that was exhibited at a local library where children could see it.
Regarding Frank Riggs' 1979 metal sculpture "Uintah" and Richard Johnston's 1988 site-specific sculpture for Utah Valley State College, the controversy was over personal taste. Riggs' work was defaced by black paint, Johnston's was cut apart by a blow torch. Both will be represented in "Making Waves."
In the exhibit's catalog essay, South, with refreshing candor and logic, reduces the problem to a sensible discussion: "Looking over the history of art in Utah, controversies most often occur where the likelihood for conflict is greatest.
"Simply put, the chances of a controversy occurring in an artist's studio are almost zero. The artist is alone and freely creating. The first step removed from that completely private situation and into the public sector is an art center or museum; these spaces are dedicated to art, and visitors freely come to see it, appreciate it and understand it. However, unlike the artist in the studio, the public is not in control of what is seen. The chance of controversy increases, but it remains unlikely.
"As art moves farther away from an art center into spaces less dedicated to art and where the public has not made a specific effort to see it, the chances for controversy rise proportionally. The greatest chance of controversy exists when art is put outdoors in a place where people did not come to see it, where they cannot avoid it and when the work of art conflicts with what they know and value."
In a step to prevent further art controversies and increase dialogue between artists and the public, South believes we should take a cue from Renaissance Florence. The Florentines had committees that discussed which artist should be used on a project, what the subject matter of the work would be, where the work would eventually be displayed in the city, etc. It was very sophisticated, and the committee didn't take the responsibility lightly. What was going to be out in public said something about Florence, their city.
"If you have some sort of public input, at least you've accommodated them," said South. "There are creative ways to do this that we never exercise.
"Suppose you had several scale models of proposed works and you set them out and invited public opinion. We need to do something like this. People would love to be a part of the process. You know, take a poll. Here are the things we're considering. What do you think?"
While this might be considered naive, South himself admits it would be a little unwieldy.
"But there's a tradeoff," he added. "If the art community accommodates the public on site-specific work, it only seems fair that the public accept that art institutions are going to occasionally show something that is controversial. This will allow the art community access to traveling shows of contemporary art that might be a little challenging. No one should be denied access to that."
According to South, the art community of Utah has been responsible in its efforts to satisfy both the tastes of artists and the public. Local museums have never really pushed the envelope with difficult shows, he added - there haven't been exhibits by such artists as Andres Serrano, Kikki Smith, Joel-Peter Witkin or Robert Mapplethorpe.
"There's got to be room for the Richard Johnstons and the Mahonri Youngs," South said.
Even Ervil shouldn't complain about that.
In an effort to assist the public in understanding the debate over controversial art, the Salt Lake Art Center is offering a daylong symposium on Oct. 18 on "Making Waves: Controversial Art in Utah." The SLAC is located at 20 S. West Temple. For times, participants and more information, phone 328-4201.
"Making Waves: Controversial Art in Utah" is sponsored by Anonymous Donor, Utah Humanities Council, ACLU of Utah Foundation and the Salt Lake County Centennial Commission.