BEHIND THE STORY | Art that offends


Though the exhibition is now closed, I haven’t been able to get “9 Artists,” the provocative show at the Walker Art Center, out of my head. There were some things I really hated about the show and some things I really liked, but the work of two artists in particular came up again recently after reading Adrienne Doyle’s Community Voices article.

One piece appeared in a photographic installation created by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard called The awakening and consumption of Heidi Fleiss as she talks to a brioche named Austin. The photographs, taken by Johannes Worsoe, show Melgaard out and about in his life, almost as if he were the star of some reality television show.

One of the photographs in the show is of a painting that contains the n-word in a highly sexualized/fetishized way. I was taken aback when I first encountered this particular photograph and didn’t understand the context of why it would appear in the installation created by a white Norwegian man.  I spoke with the curator of the exhibit, Bart Ryan, who talked about how as a gay man, Melgaard is interested in bringing subcultures to light, revealing fetishes that are commonplace in his experience.

I learned later that the painting was actually not painted by Melgaard but by his former fiancée Omar Harvey, who is black, which made me see the piece in a different way, but I wondered why the Walker wouldn’t provide some context to that effect.

Similarly, the racist knick knacks assembled by artist Dahn Vo from Martin Wong’s collection are also jarring. While neither man is white, I still questioned what authority they have in presenting these offensive images.

I appreciated Doyle’s frank and articulate response to the exhibit, which I found to be very brave considering she actually works at the Walker as a guard. I think her piece speaks to the divide that sometimes occurs between an artist’s intentions and the actual effect of their work. 

While these artists may have intentions of critiquing racism or sexism, or making a statement about popular culture, if they are making work that is offensive to historically oppressed groups of people, than their message isn’t getting across in the right way.

For that reason, I think it’s really important not only for art institutions to support artists of color (“9 Artists” did feature a very diverse line-up of artists), but also for the dialogue around the art to have a diverse perspective.