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This Guy's Penis Is a Work of Art

Full-frontal nudity got performance artist Joseph Ravens—and with him every other performance artist—booted from a Loop storefront gallery project.



"Art Works," the slogan National Endowment for the Arts chair Rocco Landesman was spouting during his quick visit to Chicago two weeks ago, is shorthand for the theory he was touting—that art is good for the economy, and especially for urban redevelopment. The stuff is supposed to work like Botox on failing neighborhoods: inject a few artists and, presto, the ugly disappears. People flock, and commerce flourishes.

In practice, however, the relationship between art and business isn't always so smooth. The Chicago Artists Coalition found that out this month when it suppressed the work of a local artist and then shut down one of the venues in the Pop-Up Art Loop network the Chicago Loop Alliance sponsors to liven up vacant downtown storefronts.

It seems that in Chicago storefronts, art works only if it keeps its clothes on.

That came as a surprise to performance artist Joseph Ravens, who considers his body his canvas. Ravens had taken a week off his day job as a freelance photographic stylist to prepare for the CLA's June 3 Gallery Walk event—akin to an opening for pop-up shows. He was putting together some pieces for a storefront at 220 S. Wabash, which had been dubbed the Performance Outlet.

The Outlet was created this spring, after the CAC—which has been programming pop-ups for the CLA—invited Links Hall to curate a performance-art venue. Links director Roell Schmidt says she was thrilled to do it. "It was a chance to give artists exactly what they need: free space, a deadline, and an audience." The deal was to put three or four artists at a time in the space for six-week stints.

Ravens was part of the first group of artists in residence at the Outlet. In addition to a series of brief performances, he planned to exhibit two installations and a triptych of photos conceived by him and shot by Alan Rovge. The installations included a costume consisting of a large, hot-pink, faux-leather intestine equipped with a pair of amorphous spandex organs. Among the performances were Wantitis—a "statement about the economy," Ravens says, in which he dons a giant molded replica of his head and feeds dollar bills into a shredder strapped to his chest—and Is My Liver Showing?, an exploration of gluttony and consumption in which he rides a stationary bike while expelling pieces of his "liver" (actually, pillows) from an opening in his costumed torso.

In one of the three photos taken by Rovges, Ravens sits with his head entirely covered by an enormous red turban. In the next, he's standing in a pair of oversized white shit-kickers. And in the last, he crouches, his head swallowed this time by a fluffy white wig. The images, he says, represent a "heroic character flanked by the Apollonian and Dionysian sides of himself." Except for the turban, the boots, and the wig, he's naked in all three.

According to Ravens, CAC community outreach coordinator Pepper Coate came through the Outlet on June 3, ten minutes before the show was to open. She eyeballed the two-by-four-foot triptych and announced, "This has to come down."

Joseph Ravens

"It's a two-dimensional work, and it was up in the back of the storefront, away from the window," Ravens maintains. "I said, 'Let's talk about it. This equals censorship. If you take this down, I have to strike all of my work.'" But Coate insisted, and he took the nudes down. Ravens canceled his performance, and the next day he moved all his materials out of the space.

Three days later, Coate e-mailed the other performance artists who were in residence along with Ravens at the Outlet—Erica Mott, Sentell Harper, and the team of Matthew Nicholas and Eric Warner—to tell them that they would have to go, too.

In fact, she wrote, all performance art scheduled for that location through October was canceled, including work by locals Heather Hartley, Casey Murtaugh, Meida McNeal, Rachel Damon, and Meredith Miller.

The seeds of this fiasco had been sown the previous week. An international trend spawned by the depressed commercial real estate market, pop-up shows are supposed to benefit both property owners and the artists who get free temporary use of the premises. Chicago Loop Alliance executive director Ty Tabing told WLS-TV earlier this year that the end goal of the Pop-Up Art Loop program, which started last fall, "is to rent these spaces." And the artists are supposed to be catalysts, creating a vibrant scene. To that end, Loop pop-up galleries are advertised as having public hours Monday-Saturday, 11:30 AM-5:30 PM.

But that arrangement works better for traditional visual art disciplines like painting than it does for performance. Ravens, who'd begun his residency at the Outlet in early May, says Coate called him a couple weeks into it to ask why he wasn't there more often. In response, he gave several mini-performances in the front window during the week of May 24, and also used the space for the photo shoot that produced the offending triptych. Ravens posed on a gray backdrop, with the photographer, a stylist, and an assistant standing between him and the window—which, he claims, made him relatively hard to see from the street. "But we were using flash, so maybe that was what caught attention," he says. In any case, they were startled when a man in a business suit marched in. "'Yeah, yeah, the human body is beautiful,'" Ravens recalls him saying, "'but not in my window.' So we put paper over the windows and shot for 20 minutes more."

Building manager Bruce Lord says he came down to take a look after getting a phone call informing him that "there was a nude man in the window—a public area, during the day, with crowds of people walking by. We've been a big supporter of art and the pop-up program, but I felt this was inappropriate."

Joseph Ravens

Lord adds that he considers his run-in with Ravens just an "incident that has come and gone," and the only thing he objected to was the presence of a nude man in the window of the storefront.

Ravens, 42, has his MFA in performance from the School of the Art Institute. He does the occasional university guest-artist gig, but his performance career doesn't currently support him. He says he's building an international reputation, though, and thinks he might be better known in Asia than he is here, having performed in China, South Korea, and Myanmar. Roell Schmidt says she was "blown away" by what she saw of his work when she sat on a Chicago Dancemakers Forum funding panel this spring and was eager to have him participate in the pop-up program. "Nudity's not unusual in performance art," she says, and "we didn't know going in that it would be an issue here. Joseph's body is a sculptural element in all the work he does. This is a coming together of comfort levels that didn't mesh."

Tabing mentions in his television interview that landlords "have final approval of the art, so nothing too controversial is in their storefronts," and the contract the CAC hands all the pop-up artists makes that clear. But Ravens notes that his proposal to the CAC included nudity in the description of his work. He says he didn't imagine that anything he was planning for the space would be a problem. "If I had set out to do something provocative," he says, "I would have done something more radical."

Coate's June 6 e-mail to the Outlet artists said that "the owner of 220 S. Wabash would prefer to work with 2D/visual artists in his space." She added that the CAC was hoping to find an alternative site for performance art. At press time, though, no other venue had been identified.

"The pop-up program is a special situation," says CAC executive director Carolina Jayaram. "It affords the artists the opportunity for space, but the hook is it's not our space to manage. Building owners have sensitivities regular galleries wouldn't have. It's been a big learning process." She also notes that the CAC has never worked with performance artists before, and that's "something different and challenging."

Joseph Ravens

One of those performance artists, Matthew Nicholas, who was a member of the same Outlet group as Ravens, says he doesn't believe this was "an issue of censorship because the landlord had the ability to say what was okay or not." But Lord maintains he was never asked about the photos and never gave a verdict on them. "I didn't see them," he says, "I don't know anything about them," He also says he never made a comment one way or the other about whether performance art could continue at the 220 S. Wabash.

Which suggests that at the first sign of a culture clash, someone on the curatorial side overreacted.

"We heard from CLA that Bruce Lord didn't want any more performance art in there, and we took our direction from them," Jayaram says. "Pepper made that call because she didn't want CLA to come in and shut down the whole show."

The CLA's Tabing says, "We chose to not continue with Links Hall as a result of this artist. There are many things you can do with art that don't involve nudity, so as policy decision we don't want to run the risk again. We're now trying to be more stringent about preapproving the art that goes into spaces." Tabing says he doesn't recall what he told the CAC about the landlord, but "the two rules of the program are no nudity and return the space to its original condition." If the nudity ban wasn't spelled out for the artists in writing before, Tabing adds, "it will be going forward."

According to Jayaram, the 220 S. Wabash space will continue to be part of the pop-up network. A sculpture exhibit is going in next.

It had better be abstract.   

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