Artist David Alvey knew when he started work on the piece he calls "CYBER.sex" that it would contain subject matter that might offend people.
"The concept consumed me and, literally, my studio," Alvey says of the almost six-foot-long installation, a solid mahogany tabletop with three computer monitors, two of them displaying modified images of naked women. Most of the pictures--downloaded from some of the adult sites on America Online--are from amateur collections, shot with Polaroids by the husbands or boyfriends of the subjects.
"Once I got online, I went all over the place," he says. "I admit, I'm a curious person. Some of that time was spent entering these adult chat rooms. It struck me how the people who were communicating didn't know anything about each other, especially how old they were. I have a 15-year-old son, and this would be like leaving the entrance to a strip club wide open to him."
Alvey says that the installation "sort of mutated from that experience. After about 200 hours stretched over six weeks, there was this big thing in my studio."
Although he concedes the piece could be interpreted as erotic, Alvey insists his intention was to remind parents how they, not the federal government, must supervise their children's time at the monitor. It was an important enough subject and an effective enough statement, he felt, to enter in the Texas Visual Artist Association's 50th anniversary member show, currently on display at NorthPark Mall.
Alvey has been a TVAA member for three years, and his collages and assemblages have been displayed in two previous membership shows. The 1997 exhibition promised to be an especially prestigious one, as NorthPark owner and world-renowned art collector Raymond Nasher would be honored with a lifetime membership in the TVAA.
But after the TVAA's board members, including Member Show chairperson Candy Howard, got a gander at a photo of "CYBER.sex," they asked Alvey to voluntarily withdraw the piece. Howard told Alvey the installation was "inappropriate for the venue."
"I took another look at it, and decided to modify," Alvey declares. "There was never any sexual contact or exposed genitalia in the photos I used. But I covered up pubic hair and nipples with computer images...when I resubmitted it after the changes, they rejected it again. They wouldn't explain to me what 'inappropriate' meant. I was confused, especially since there were other nude images (accepted for the NorthPark exhibition)."
Howard confirms that the show at NorthPark contains other instances of nudity. But she stands firmly behind the board's request that "CYBER.sex" be pulled and another piece submitted in its place.
"There's a difference between tasteful and distasteful nudity," Howard insists. "These were very crude images of women with their legs spread wide open, or leaning over with their boobs spilling out onto the table. These were not artists' renderings of the human body.
"The space for the show (in NorthPark) sits right next to FAO Schwartz. I didn't want to subject people to this piece without their consent, parents shopping with their kids or old ladies with walkers. We didn't want to cause any heart attacks."
Howard affirms that she, like the rest of TVAA, supports the display of controversial art. Three years before Alvey was a member, she points out, the organization hosted a show of censored art at the Stout McCourt Gallery. Included in that show were pieces that had been omitted from past TVAA shows--at the request not of the TVAA board, but of the buildings, both public and private, that host their exhibitions.
TVAA is the largest and oldest visual arts organization of its kind in the state, an entity that seeks to connect professional artists with the public by arranging for exhibits in non-traditional places like hospitals, office buildings, malls, and high schools. The group is beholden to rules laid down by the owners of those places. But Howard claims Alvey's is the first instance in the history of the TVAA in which the group's board, and not the host space, requested that a member submit a different work.
The venue issue, Alvey contends, is where the Raymond Nasher connection comes in.
"Getting NorthPark is a very big deal to the group," Alvey surmises. "I'd love to show there, because it's got some great art. But I wonder if they're afraid of offending Raymond Nasher, who I believe owns provocative art himself. The TVAA wants to make sure they're invited back next year."
After his work was rejected, Alvey attempted to plead his case directly to Nasher. Alvey faxed a letter to the real estate magnate's offices, recounting the tale of how his work was bumped from the show. Alvey ended his letter by "extending a personal invitation for you to visit my studio at your convenience and see 'CYBER.sex' for yourself. If you consider it inappropriate or feel it would cause you or NorthPark problems, then I will quietly withdraw it from the exhibit.'"
Although Alvey claims a secretary at the Nasher Co. confirmed receiving the fax, a reply wasn't forthcoming from Nasher. The Dallas Observer's calls to the Nasher Co. yielded a single, cheerful return call from Annette, Nasher's secretary. She promised to find out if Nasher knew of the fracas and had an opinion; the call hadn't been returned at press time.
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"Raymond Nasher has nothing to do with TVAA's decision," Candy Howard asserts. "The board made a unanimous decision to do this because of our own concerns. I think David Alvey has attached Nasher's name for publicity purposes."
Alvey has hardly been shy about courting the local press. His wife, Carolyn, acts as publicist for Aardvark Studios, the Garland-based space the couple operates together. The Alveys tried to convince KTVT Channel 11 to do a story on the flap, and say the station agreed to interview the artist if it was given an exclusive. A spokesman for KTVT confirmed that the station checked out the story, although it has not aired.
Currently, Carolyn Alvey is circulating a press release to publicize the exhibition of "CYBER.sex" at Aardvark Studios. A photo of the installation is reprinted with a black label that reads "CENSORED" slapped across it. The release contains a statement of purpose by the artist that the piece "is intended to stimulate discussion...Where do we draw the line between individual rights and censorship?" The release ends with "So, Life imitates Art...Art imitates Life...and an 'Arts' group imitates Big Brother. Welcome to the '90s!"
"My attitude toward this whole thing with TVAA is, 'Well, it's your show, and there's not much I can do about it,'" Alvey says. "But I think that as a member of the organization, I'm owed an explanation beyond 'It's inappropriate.' I still haven't received one. So all I can do is take my case to the public.