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Restaurant Art Debate Plays to Empty House


WEST LOS ANGELES — When Orleans restaurant put up a painting of three half-nude women to promote Mardi Gras, neighbors called owner Mary Atkinson to object.

She responded last week, not by putting pasties on the topless revelers but by holding a panel discussion and inviting her critics.

They stayed away in droves.

Three members of the audience of fewer than 20 people Wednesday evening said they were offended by the artwork outside the Cajun-style restaurant on National Boulevard at Barrington Avenue. The majority defended the work as a lively, accurate depiction of the pre-Lenten excesses that are the essence of Mardi Gras.

Eight-year-old Erin Symons, a card-carrying Brownie, said the nudes didn't bother her at all, although she preferred the painting of a large blue cow that is also part of the promotion. Similarly unfazed, her brother Marshall pointed out that nobody objects to uncovered breasts in the course of feeding a baby. Clearly, Marshall, 10, is to the left of Jesse Helms in matters of public art.

But Hilary Cave said she no longer likes to push her 3-year-old Benjamin past the restaurant since the semi-nudes went up. Two of the figures are inoffensive, she said, but she objected to one reveler who seems to be offering her bare breasts to passersby.

"What I don't like him to see is the sexually suggestive, sleazy, holding-the-breasts one," she said, in a cultured English accent.

Panelist Lee Spiro, an art critic and dealer, lit into Cave when she asked if the restaurant would consider moving the work inside.

"That's censorship!" he said. He told the woman: "You are hiding your uptightness behind your supposed concern for your child." He said her standards were Puritanical and finally asked, "How little confidence do you have in your parenting?"

Cave told him she found his aggressive tone offensive.

"What about freedom?" one of the paintings' supporters asked.

"Oh, puh-lease," critic Kate McNamee replied. "My freedom is being infringed upon."

McNamee said she thought that more critics of the Mardi Gras promotion would have turned out if the discussion had not been scheduled at the same time as President Clinton's address to Congress. She came, she said, because she objects to all three semi-nudes and "somebody has to say no. Take it down to Sunset and Vine, but not here."

Artist Peter Walker talked about art in public places. He recounted how he had once received death threats over his mural for a New Mexico church. Walker eventually acceded to mounting public pressure and put a beard on the Christ he had wanted to depict clean-shaven.

Walker said he was thrilled by the buzz that his Mardi Gras work had generated. "We love the fact that we provoked controversy," he said. "It's really quite amazing to us when someone reacts to what we do. Usually, they walk on by."

Walker acknowledged that he and Atkinson had hoped to attract the attention of the public and the media. "We couldn't have hoped for a better reaction."

In reply, McNamee said she thought that Atkinson cared less about the community than about publicizing her restaurant. "As a business lady, she's to be congratulated," McNamee said. "As a neighbor, forget it."

No one claimed that the work was obscene, only offensive. The obscenity issue had been resolved weeks ago when the LAPD's Pacific Vice Unit decided that the paintings violated no law and could remain on public display.

Eventually, the talk of community standards and the nature of art became more mellow; perhaps Atkinson's complimentary drinks and platters of Cajun popcorn helped.

Asked what kind of art he would find offensive, panelist Spiro cited the transvestite ballerina clown in Venice. Spiro said he didn't object to the sculpture's installation because of the figure's apparent cross-dressing, "I just thought the thing was goddamn awful." But he noted that he refused to sign a petition to have it removed.

"Artistic freedom is essential to the health of a culture," he said.

Will even more be bared for Mardi Gras '94? Walker would only say, "When you see what we do next year, you'll really be amazed."

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