Culture clash

Irving officials wrestle with male nudity in city exhibit

Irving just doesn't get it, says Laray Polk, a Dallas artist whose mural-size drawing adorns a wall of the suburb's city-funded arts center.

In her 8-by-20-foot work, titled "They're calling for a Flowery War!" there are heroic-size male figures, snippets of a pop song written in Chaucerian English, a giant moth being ripped apart by its wings, and the outlines of a city behind a mound of upturned books.

So much symbolism, in fact, that it took Polk more than two years to dream it up.

But all Irving can see are penises--two of them, small and barely noticable as they dangle from naked, skinless bodies.

Rosie Meng, the Irving Arts Center's director, says this male anatomy has caused "numerous" complaints from citizens and city officials since Polk's mural went up on May 5 as part of an exhibit of artwork by North Lake College faculty.

Irving Mayor Morris Parrish personally fielded a gripe from a member of Irving's city council-appointed art board, which sets policy for the arts center. The art board member, who he won't name, "felt the painting was bordering on pornographic," Parrish says.

The mayor then visited the exhibit himself, and deemed Polk's work "inappropriate" for a center that presents art to all ages. "I've been around the world and I've seen art, I've seen nudes," he said last week. "But this is not just a nude. This is--as my wife says--an eroticism."

Late last week, Meng and Marcie Inman, the gallery's curator, asked Polk to remove the offending work. They also decided to ask another North Lake faculty member, Bob Nunn, to remove his much smaller, somewhat abstract painting, "Firestarter"--which depicts two flaming red penises rubbing against each other.

On Monday, Meng reversed her decision, saying she would allow the works to remain on display. But by then, Polk, calling it "an integrity issue," had become disgusted with the officials' waffling and requested that all three of her paintings be removed. (As of Tuesday morning, they had not yet come down.)

Defending her actions, Meng points out that the gallery's status as a publicly funded institution gives it a different role than a private gallery. "We realize that the city is made up of so many different people with so many different tastes, but I start to worry when regular patrons start to complain," she says. "The issue is not why it offends, but that it does offend. And as a department of the city, we have an obligation to the city and its citizens. We must listen to the community."

Arts center officials say the complaints--especially about Polk's mural--began on the exhibit's opening day.

As word got out about the controversial artwork, several members of the Irving Art Board visited the gallery, which serves as a hallway between the Irving Art Center's Carpenter Performance Hall and Dupree Theater. Most patrons visit the center, which is funded almost entirely by the city's hotel and motel occupancy tax, to attend events at one of the two theaters, and stroll through the gallery before or after performances.

Some art board members complained about Polk's mural and Nunn's painting to Meng, who agreed that something needed to be done. Meng discussed the artworks with the gallery's curator, Marcie Inman.

Inman asked Polk to write a statement explaining the symbolism of her work, whose full title is: "They're calling for a Flowery War in a land of waste, a land of haste, Feirefiz and his half-brother tear the veil, the moyomot, the wings of Maya Zuzumen Black(ink)foot Night of Moth Sleep Bringer."

In the statement, Polk, a drawing instructor at North Lake, explained that the male figures are tearing apart the moth in a search for empirical knowledge--but in doing so, they destroy the creature's true form.

Polk's statement, which lays out the literal, allegorical, and mythological layers of meaning within the work, contains an apparent jab at her critics. "...The unenlightened mind will perceive the physical appearance of the artwork as the only reality," she writes.

The statement, never displayed publicly, didn't satisfy arts center officials--who say they've received more than 50 complaints.

On the advice of Jody Harmon, one of nine art board members, the gallery posted a disclaimer warning viewers that some artwork inside the gallery depicted frontal nudity and might not be suitable for children.

But when the complaints continued, Inman on May 18 asked Polk to remove "They're calling for a Flowery War!" The center also tried to contact Nunn to ask him to take down "Firestarter," but couldn't reach him.

Polk was upset by the request. "I have two other pieces in the show. One has a bare-chested woman with her head cut off and no legs, and no one's complaining about that."

She said it was obvious that the objections centered on her decision to depict male nudity--because the vulnerability of a naked man conflicts with the American ideal of masculinity. "They're mad at something that has challenged their belief system," she says.

After Polk questioned the arts center's authority to require her to remove the artworks, Meng reviewed the gallery policies--which say she can't remove a work without the artist's consent--and decided the works could stay up. The art board voted 4-3 on Monday to support her decision.

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