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City Hall's Virgin Ears

Can you find the F-word? Somebody did and took down this artwork. Now Scott Free is steaming.

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City Hall's Virgin Ears

When it was set up in the lobby of City Hall on November 27, the traveling exhibit "Faces of AIDS: Personal Stories From the Heartland" featured 20 portraits of HIV-positive people, along with statements from each subject. But by the time it left the building on December 1, World AIDS Day, the show--a joint project of the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Illinois Department of Public Health--had just 19 faces. One piece had been removed.

That posterlike portrait, designed by Scott Creamer, includes a photograph by Doug Berkenhaur of Scott Free, a local musician whose songs offer unsentimental depictions of gay life. Free is shown in a top hat and tails holding a cocktail glass full of pills. The portrait also has lyrics from one of Free's songs, "The Living Dead," which includes the following lines: "We are the living dead / We're not just here today / So get the fuck out of our way." The word "fuck" is repeated several times in a textured and colorful background. "It would be very hard to find the word," says Free.

But not too hard for an unidentified City Hall staffer, who took down the portrait the day after the exhibit went on display and then informed city public health officials. These officials, in turn, told Jim Pickett, a "Faces of AIDS" coordinator and the principal writer of its accompanying book. Pickett says the project was meant to give voice to a variety of experiences but AIDS activists have to pick their battles. "We understand that certain things are hot buttons," says Pickett. "We've had incredible support from the city and the state, and to take something down that says 'fuck' is no big deal. It was a wise thing to do--someone nipped it in the bud before there was any big trouble."

Jennifer Hoyle, a spokesperson for the city's Law Department, says there's no statute prohibiting the display of what might be deemed offensive language in public buildings. But if an offending work is part of a city-sponsored exhibit, Hoyle says, "We reserve the right to do with it whatever we want at any time."

Censorship wasn't the issue, says Cydne Perhats, associate administrator for the city Public Health Department's division of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, and AIDS. "We wanted to get the message out that the AIDS epidemic is not over and that there are many people of all ages, races, genders, and lifestyles that are still living with AIDS," she says. "Rather than have something interfere with getting that message out in the public eye, we went along with the decision" to have the poster removed.

Free wouldn't have been so accommodating. He thinks he was unfairly silenced, suggesting his lyrics were "suppressed" because they expressed anger--an "appropriate response" to AIDS, he says, since many have grown complacent about the disease and refuse to acknowledge its toll on society. Considering the stigma still attached to AIDS, Free says, "the last thing we should be doing is censoring. What's the point?...But, like I say in the song, 'We will not rest in peace.'"

"Faces of AIDS" will travel to museums, universities, schools, and other sites throughout the midwest in 2001, and more portraits from other states will be added along the way. Pickett hopes the exhibit will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art this summer; if that happens, he expects Free's portrait will be included. Yet, he adds, when it's mounted in government buildings--including a mid-February stint at the state capitol in Springfield--Free's poster probably won't be up.

They'll Take Manhattan

Since 1993, River North gallery owner Michael Lyons Wier has shown paintings by artists whom he considers "obsessed" with a "narrative, figural realism." Since 1991, dealer Aron Packer has built his reputation showing work by folk and outsider artists, with a bit of what he calls "good painting" on the side. So it didn't seem like much of a stretch when the two joined forces last fall in the rechristened Lyonswier Packer Gallery at 300 W. Superior. "Our type of stuff is 80 percent blurred over," says Wier. "It's similar enough to share an identity, but dissimilar enough to bring something to the partnership."

In a few weeks they'll share a second gallery in New York's East Village; their inaugural exhibit, opening February 1, will feature new paintings by San Francisco artist Jane Fisher and Chicago's Paul Mullins. The dealers will continue to draw from their roster of local and national artists, though they hope to add some New York artists as well. "It's a way to expand our personal vision as gallerists and to expand our stable," says Wier. "And there are a number of great artists in Chicago who don't have representation in New York."

Wier will move to Manhattan to run the new Lyonswier Packer Gallery out of a tiny storefront at 13 E. 7th Street, while Packer will oversee the Chicago location. Until 1997 Packer ran his quirky gallery out of Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building; then for two years he curated itinerant shows before hooking up with Wier. Packer says that being in River North has brought more visibility--and stability--to his enterprise. "Now I have a situation," he says. "It's great to get up in the morning and know where my show is."

New Yorkers, though, may not know where their show is right away--the new gallery doesn't yet have what Wier calls "destination pull." But it's in a building next door to the historic McSorley's Old Ale House and around the corner from the Gracie Mansion Gallery--which helped put the East Village art scene on the map in the 1980s--so Lyonswier Packer's artists should be guaranteed good foot traffic.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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