Harford delegation shows nude the door

Art: Decision is off-the-wall, says uncowed painter. She calls it naked censorship.

February 15, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

The painting that was pulled from the walls of the House office building in Annapolis did not show a crucifix immersed in urine. Nor was it provocative, homoerotic shock work, in the vein of Robert Mapplethorpe.

But some who cruise the hallways felt the classical depiction of a male nude -- legs crossed discreetly, eyes in contemplation -- was a tad too racy to keep on display. So they took it down.

The decision was viewed as benign in the corridors of the Lowe House Office Building, where virtually all of the art depicts sailboats, landscapes, birds and other innocuous scenery. But, as often happens when decisions about art are made in government circles, controversy tagged along.

Enter Melissa Shatto, the 28-year-old Harford County artist who painted the offending canvas.

Shatto feels the artwork's abrupt removal was not only rash, but a tax on expression unbecoming the Free State.

"I'm completely aghast at this whole situation," Shatto said. "Heaven forbid you glorify the human form. It's like we're heading back to Victorian times."

For Shatto, who was approached last fall by a member of the Harford County Cultural Advisory Board and asked to submit the work for display, this brush with censorship would seem most unlikely.

Far from a provocateur, the young mother was once the butt of criticism at the Maryland Institute, College of Art for not including enough social commentary in her work.

This particular painting, called "The Evolution of Leif" (the model's name), shows a nude man seated on some rocks, leaning on his right elbow, with a misty meadow and a river in the background.

"You don't even see his navel," Shatto protested, saying she painted the nude with honorable intentions. "I just thought it was a pretty picture."

Other artists are firmly in Shatto's corner. Rebecca Weber, who runs the Sheppard Art Gallery in Ellicott City, said a government institution has no business restricting the scope of artwork.

"I don't understand why in 1999 we're unable to accept the nude figure," she said. "It's ridiculous."

Of all this stir, Sandy Boarman shakes her head in disbelief.

Boarman, office manager for Harford County's House delegation, was placed in charge of the artwork in its area of the building. She said the moment "Leif" was unveiled she had a gut feeling there was going to be trouble.

And she was right -- complaints rolled in almost immediately.

Rather than risk offending visitors, she asked that the naked man be quietly removed.

"In fact, I thought it was a very good painting," Boarman said in an interview at her office, which, incidentally, is decorated with modest prints of Harford County scenes. "It just didn't seem appropriate for our office."

House Coordinator Barbara Oakes, who oversees placement of art in the Lowe building, agreed with the decision. The hallways, she explained, are well traveled by visitors of every age and background. Displays, therefore, must be "as sensitive and innocuous as possible."

"We're not an art gallery and we're not arbiters of taste," she said. "It's just that in this case, we had several complaints that it wasn't dignified, and wasn't appropriate, so we made a judgment call."

The five delegates who share the Harford County office plead ignorance. All new members of the General Assembly, they said the painting came down so fast they never saw it.

"Usually they display agricultural pictures," said Del. Barry Glassman, the Republican who heads the county delegation. "That's probably a safer way to go."

Indeed, in place of "Leif" hangs a giant, acrylic bovine portrait, simply titled "Cow."

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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