When I heard about a controversy brewing over a ceramics show at the Lakewood Cultural Center (470 South Allison Parkway, 303-987-7876), I naturally assumed that the problem exhibit was American Stoneware & Crockery: 1880-1930, featuring the collection of noted ceramics authority Tom Turnquist. After all, that show was overflowing with "jugs," many of them in see-through glazes.
But as it turned out, Stoneware & Crockery was already gone, and it was another ceramics exhibit in Lakewood, Conversations in Clay, that was causing all the commotion. In fact, City Manager Mike Rock had even ordered that part of a piece in the show be removed, because it was deemed to be "anti-American."
Rock, who had not even seen the exhibit when he banned the offending element, did so in response to a joint statement by city council members Tom Booher, Jackie Herbst and Ray Elliot. They, in turn, were responding to a complaint by a single viewer, Navy veteran and Littleton resident Jim Proud. That's right: Proud doesn't even live in Lakewood, yet that town's bureaucrats jumped at his command.
The piece that had Proud's bellbottoms in a twist was "Hope Stones," by Gayla Lemke, one of three artists in Conversations in Clay (the others are Caroline Douglas and Marie E.v.B. Gibbons). "Hope Stones" consists of ceramic forms in the shape of stones that are impressed with quotations about the futility of war; a larger version of this same piece was shown last year at Edge Gallery. (Apparently Proud missed that display, because no one was moved to censor it in Denver.)
Among the quotes that Lemke, an Air Force veteran, chose for the piece was this one from TV political commentator Bill Maher: "A real coward is someone who drops a bomb from a protected space several thousand feet up." Although Proud, along with Booher, Herbst, Elliot, Rock and surely many others believe that Maher's remark was aimed at U.S. troops currently engaged in Iraq, it actually predated the war and was the quote responsible for the cancellation of Maher's Politically Incorrect by ABC (that's how he wound up on HBO). Lemke's piece displayed this comment as part of a chorus of others from the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Ward Beecher, but the diversity of views didn't matter one bit to Lakewood's culture police.
By ordering the removal of the difficult-for-some element, Rock diminished the credibility of the Lakewood Cultural Center as a viable exhibition venue. And get this: There's now talk of having city officials determine what art can be seen at the center. If that comes to pass, it will kill the place. At the same time, the censoring of the show casts an ominous shadow over the not-yet-built Belmar Lab, which promises to showcase cutting-edge contemporary art -- if Lakewood allows it.
The Bush era is getting scarier as conservatives grow bolder about promoting censorship on television, in books and now in art shows. It's shades of the former Soviet Union, where suppression of art was a way of life. From the 1920s until its collapse, the Soviet Union had a policy of controlling artistic production so that everything artists did supported the expressed values of the government officials -- the way some would like to see it done in Lakewood. But Russian artists did what they wanted anyway.
Many of those dissidents wound up in this country, including Komar and Melamid, who live in New York and have an ongoing Denver presence because the Sloane Gallery of Art represents them. Like Lemke, Komar and Melamid were subject to censorship here when their proposed murals for the Alfred A. Arraj Federal Courthouse were vetoed at the last minute because of their perceived political commentary ("Critical Incites," February 21, 2002).
Steve Antonio is not a former Soviet artist, although his large paintings in BOCTOK, at Capsule (554 Santa Fe Drive, 303-623-3460), might make you think he is. The reason? These neo-pop compositions depict the first generation of Soviet cosmonauts. The little room at Capsule, the gallery part of Pod, looks great filled with the six monumental portraits of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and the most famous of the group; Gherman Titov (above); Andrian Nicolayev; Valeri Bykovsky; and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to leave the atmosphere. The photorealist portraits each have a red background emblazoned with a yellow hammer and sickle -- the international symbol of communism.
Antonio's method appears photo-based, and it is, but not in the ordinary sense. He projects photos onto canvases and then hand-paints the images. This hybrid process makes the works look like photo silkscreens from a distance; up close, however, they are clearly paintings, with the pigments showily worked and piled up in places.
Antonio was a member of the now-defunct ILK co-op and was part of its grand-opening exhibition in 1997 in its Santa Fe space -- the space now occupied by Pod and Capsule. BOCTOK hangs there through March 19.
Conversations in Clay will continue its run without the Maher stone (which Lemke sold after it was removed from the display); it closes on March 25. The minds of Proud, Rock, Booher, Herbst and Elliot are already closed.