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An early departure

In another airport arts battle, Richard White takes his work out of John Wayne after an official opts to alter it.

January 15, 2008|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Richard WHITE thinks the title of his ceramic sculpture "Insignificant Works of Art" was taken too literally by the official in charge of art exhibitions at John Wayne Airport, resulting in a double dose of disrespect: First the piece was censored, with the removal of two of its 10 figures, then what remained was put on display in a makeshift configuration -- all without White's being notified.

The group show that contained the work -- "Orange County Contemporary Ceramics" -- opened Oct. 25 and is scheduled to run through Feb. 21 at the Santa Ana airport, in an area where only ticketed passengers are allowed. White's piece, however, is no longer a part of it. He didn't see the display until late November, when he escorted his two young daughters to a flight. Upset by the changes, he asked that "Insignificant Works" be removed.

The piece, chosen by a guest curator, was a series of five pairs of male and female figures, intended, in the artist's words, as a "commentary concerning relationships and their ramifications." The missing figures, both about 2 feet tall, were men pegged to the wall by their collars, with slumped shoulders and hanging heads.

At first fearing they had been broken or stolen, White, a 55-year-old ceramics professor at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, began a series of e-mail exchanges in which he learned that Jeffrey Frisch, the airport's arts coordinator since 1998, had removed the two figures because he thought they depicted dead people -- which might be upsetting for some passengers. The airport then complied with White's request to have his work taken out of the show and returned to him. Another artist, Jorg Dubin, withdrew in support of White.

Frisch, White said in a recent interview, "is a sculptor himself, so he should have known you don't take parts of a piece out" and then present the remnant as the artist's work.

"It's a humiliating experience," he said. "It's important to you, and the public isn't able to see what you did. They see something else."

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Following the rules

Frisch declined to be interviewed and referred questions to Jenny Wedge, spokeswoman for the Orange County-run airport. In e-mails that White forwarded to The Times, Frisch had explained that his rules for airport art are "no nudity . . . no profanity and . . . nothing controversial."

On top of that, Frisch wrote, is a responsibility not to add to the anxiety some travelers feel before flying. He said he vetoed White's two figures because they might "easily engender anxiety and upset in the viewer."

Wedge, the airport spokeswoman, said that Frisch's concerns about death imagery arose when he first saw White's ceramics on the day they were to be hung. Nobody on the airport staff had looked at the photos the artist had provided in advance, she said. "We should have let him know" about the changes, "and it should have happened sooner," Wedge said.

She added that in the future, it might be "a good idea" for the airport's art staff -- Frisch, who is a full-time employee, and a five-member Airport Arts Commission appointed by the Orange County Board of Supervisors -- to view photos of objects proposed for display.

Wedge said there was no intention to compromise White's work or show disrespect for his art.

"It's unfortunate it worked out this way," she said. "We have a little different way of looking at art here because of the context in which it's being shown. We want to help passengers have an enjoyable experience."

White said that if Frisch had shared his concerns promptly and not taken liberties by displaying an incomplete and rearranged work, "I wouldn't have been that upset."

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Not the first time

As it happens, White's case is far from a first. Officials at Los Angeles International Airport also have tried on occasion to spare the traveling public any presumed offense by art chosen by the city's Cultural Affairs Commission.

In 2001, the issue was images of nude male figures -- with private parts discreetly hidden -- that artist Susan Narduli had sandblasted into a terminal floor. After some LAX employees objected, airport officials covered the figures with brown paper.

Three years later, officials darkened a display case after receiving complaints from employees and passersby about disturbing imagery in a tapestry by a collective of 115 artists -- one panel showed a bare-breasted woman holding a bleeding heart, with the World Trade Center in flames behind her. In both cases, L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Commission had the final say, and it ruled the works acceptable.

Abe Garfield, assistant director and curator of San Francisco Airport Museums, the cultural wing of San Francisco International Airport, outlined standards similar to Frisch's in Orange County: "Our rule of thumb has always been no weapons, no nudity, no blood and gore -- make it something that won't be upsetting for somebody about to get on a plane." But, he added, "Sometimes you can be overly cautious. You don't just want to put out pablum all the time."

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