How's It Hanging?

Life in the penis gallery, and other mixed nuts in Boulder.

Without all the flag-waving, nobody would have noticed the penises.

After all, they'd hung in the Canyon Gallery of the Boulder Public Library for three weeks before the library received its first complaint about "Hanging 'em Out to Dry," one of fifty pieces included in Art Triumphs Over Domestic Violence, an exhibit sponsored by Boulder County Safehouse. And during that time, the show had collected numerous positive reviews, not just in the local media but also in a book that the library set out for viewers' comments -- most of them as heartfelt as the artists' statements about their own work.

An uneven but sincere lot, that work -- still on display through November 26 -- ranged from pieces comparing domestic violence to terrorist attacks (!) to a few very graphic nudes that made Judy Chicago seem like a priss, detailed down to every pubic hair. (When the Canyon Gallery hosted an entire show of nudes -- both male and female -- back in summer 2000, it inspired exactly one complaint. Boulder residents also fondly remember an impromptu snow sculpture from a few years back of a naked lady who reclined on a bench outside the library until she melted away.) And yes, overhead was a clothesline, from which dangled 22 colorful ceramic penises. But no one so much as whimpered about their inclusion until longtime library director Marcelee Gralapp vetoed putting a ten-foot-by-fifteen-foot American flag outside the entrance for fear that it might "offend" someone.

And with that, Boulder hung itself. Again.

In another town, a public library wouldn't dream of exhibiting a string of penises, or displaying portraits of nudes, or even hosting a show that included graphic artistic representations of domestic violence. But Boulder, as we all know, is not another town.

This is a town where the good citizens responded to early coverage of JonBenét Ramsey's murder (fifth anniversary coming right up) by urging a boycott of the Globe and other supermarket tabloids rather than suggesting that the crime be solved. This is a town where, just last winter, a third-grader's science-fair entry was banned because her use of black and white Barbie dolls was deemed politically incorrect.

But since the events of September 11, even Boulder is not the place it used to be. A decade ago, a year ago, Gralapp's refusal to hang an American flag might have gone unnoticed. And still, Gralapp could have forestalled the whole mess by simply pointing out earlier that several flags, albeit smaller ones, were already displayed -- size doesn't matter, after all -- and left out the blithering about "objectivity" that opened the library to criticism regarding what it would hang.

Penises. In broad view of any weekend warrior ready to go off half-cocked, with Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell quickly joining the ranks.

"By its very nature, the subject matter for this exhibit, domestic violence, is provocative," offered Karen Ripley, the library's director of cultural programs, in the city's response to the first penis protests. And by its very nature, a library is the sort of place where tough topics, including domestic violence, deserve to be discussed. But such discussion belongs in books, and arguably in sections that can be closed off to those who'd rather read about the subject than see it as they enter the public facility -- or, more to the point, have their children see as they enter. And ultimately, even the library recognized the need for some prophylactic measures: Last week the show was rearranged to make more "sexually explicit" pieces less visible -- in deference not to kids, but to potentially squeamish adults attending a celebration of the Boulder Planning Department's fiftieth anniversary. Had the penises been put under wraps a little earlier, the next act in this farce might have been cut short.

Instead, on Saturday morning, an anonymous Boulder patriot absconded with the penis piece, leaving a note -- "El Dildo Bandito was here" (what el dicko!) -- and a flag in its place. The library responded by posting its own notice suggesting that anyone with knowledge of the crime contact the police, as well as this comment from "Hanging 'em Out to Dry" artist Susanne Walker, a University of Colorado student: "This piece is not about dildos or sex toys, it is not about whether a large flag should be hung in the entrance to a public library. It is very sad and disturbing to me that an individual can warp and twist the message created by survivors and victims of domestic violence. It is not only an attack on my freedom of speech, but the art space, the issue of domestic violence, women and the victims of terrorism.

"If you want to attack me or my artwork, then confront me with discussion...that is the purpose of this type of art."

On Sunday, the penis pilferer, one Bob Rowan, confessed to KOA radio; he's since discussed his "anger" over the library's anti-flag, male-bashing attitudes with assorted media outlets. The penises remain in the police property room; they will not be rehung. And on Tuesday, Rowan was charged with second-degree criminal tampering, a Class 2 misdemeanor involving tampering "with the property of another with the intent to cause injury, inconvenience, or annoyance to that person or another."

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