It was once thought to be impossible that anything could push the limits of the small hippy town of Bisbee.
But Phoenix artist Eric Kasper found what makes Bisbee squeamish. The unlikely pair of pornography and horse genitalia have sent both Kasper and Bisbee on quite the ride.
Kasper’s paintings initially premiered in the new Windows Gallery, operated by Meggen Connolley and Eric Meyer, last November and opening night could not have gone better.
Days before the opening, Carolyn Torontos, a local artist and supporter of Bisbee’s art scene, told Connolley that one of the pieces may be better suited in a more secluded part of the gallery. Upon viewing the painting, Torontos felt repulsed by what the piece was depicting.
“I felt a wave of disgust roll through me when I saw that painting,” Torontos says. “Simply put, it was child pornography.”
The painting Torontos viewed is Kasper’s piece “Photograph.” The painting features two adults with smiles on their faces. Each adult is holding a leash, one attached to a baby boy, and the other attached to a baby girl. It is the bottom of the painting that caused her repulsion. One of the baby’s faces is disappearing while the other baby is on top of the body.
“It’s obvious what is happening,” Torontos says.
Kasper says he had a different intention for the art’s meaning when he painted it during the anti-gay uprising years ago.
“The painting is a comment on close mindedness within religious upbringing,” Kasper says. “The idea is that the man has raised his daughter to be submissive to men, and the woman has raised her son to take advantage of women. It is about forcing beliefs on the next generation and giving the children gender roles from birth. “
To some, this message got lost.
After receiving multiple complaints, Scott Ries, co-owner of the Bisbee Convention Center, chose to remove “Photograph” and seven other pieces, deeming them inappropriate for the space.
These other pieces included women’s breast, images thought to be disturbing, and, notably, the occasional horse with its genitalia. Some thought these horses were just horses, but Ries believed they did not fit in the family-friendly venue.
Instead of removing the seven pieces and keeping the gallery open, Connolley and Meyer opted to close the gallery all together after two days of showing Kasper’s pieces.
The removal of the pieces was not the end of the censorship dispute. Those pro-removal and anti-removal took to the “Bisbee Community” group on Facebook to engage in a war of comments.
Feeling that she was being blamed for the removal of the art in its entirety, Torontos attempted to clarify that the ordeal had been misconstrued into censorship.
“I support freedom of expression, if it is in the appropriate space,” Torontos says. “This is not an issue about censorship. It’s about what is appropriate.”
Words such as “hypocrite” were aimed and fired and as protocol for any Facebook dispute, nothing was resolved, but entertainment was indeed provided.
Even after the removal of the art and the Facebook blow up, Torontos stands by her opinion.
“I think censorship is viable,” Torontos says. “We’ve gotten to this point in society where we are almost defending the perpetrator more than the victims of things.”
In the hopes that viewers would be able to interpret the art instead of it being censored for them, Sam Poe Gallery owners Sam Woolcott and Poe Dismuke took over the show.
“People should have the opportunity themselves to choose what they want to look at,” Dismuke says.
Opening night was Jan. 9, and it was a hit. The gallery opened under the title “The Uncensored Show,” and Dismuke says that the people of Bisbee were thrilled.
While Dismuke largely wanted Kasper’s work to be seen and appreciated by Bisbee residents and visitors, he also wanted to send a message about Sam Poe Gallery’s thoughts on censorship.
“I don’t like the idea of a few people deciding what the many can see,” Dismuke says. “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to look at it again. But you have the right to decide whether you want to see it or not.”
Across the street sits Vincente’s Fine Art Gallery, which has a show predominantly dedicated to naked men called “Men… Nude, Naked & Undressed.”
“Throughout history and throughout art history, women have always been the predominant subjects of the human form,” owner Vincent Wicks says. “I wanted to show that there is a whole other side and that the male body is just as intriguing and impressive.”
To further show the appeal of the male form, Wicks also included an exclusive opening-night interactive piece.
The piece is a three-dimensional painting created by David Russell that includes naked men who are covered in metallic paint. On opening night, these men could be seen by visitors 21 and over modeling in the “Twink Tank.”
Wicks says he was not worried about Bisbee responding negatively to the show.
“By doing this show, it proved that Bisbee is perfectly comfortable with nudity,” Wicks says. “It proves that Bisbee is not uptight. They either like it or they don’t, and if they don’t, I don’t care.”
With an estimated 400 people in attendance, Wicks was happy with this show.
“I think censorship is an outdated, puritanical view. It is time for us to move on and accept that we have bodies,” Wicks says. “Just get over it.”
Tessa Patterson is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org