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Artist, exhibit sponsor face off over abstract nude paintings

Of about 70 paintings in artist Christiana's series, two were ordered taken down from public display in Long Beach because the sponsor says some viewers might find the depiction of breasts offensive.

February 10, 2009|Louis Sahagun

A battle over what constitutes "overtly sexual" art unfolded on Long Beach's trendy main thoroughfare on Monday, with an artist demanding that two of her abstract nudes be put back up on the walls of a public exhibition organized by a program that deemed them offensive.

"The two paintings are going back up, or all the paintings are coming down," the artist, who goes by her first name, Christiana, said in reference to a series of more than 70 works titled "4 Chambers" that explores the range of human forms and heartfelt emotions.

The two paintings in question show women's breasts, which the exhibition sponsors said went too far.

"They've got a problem with nipples," Christiana said. "But there is nothing obscene or pornographic about either of these paintings. Human beings breast-feed, and they've been doing it for millions of years."

Liza Simone, executive producer of Phantom Galleries L.A., which sponsored the exhibition, said, "it's completely up to my discretion what goes up in these exhibitions and what doesn't." Phantom is a for-profit community outreach program that specializes in transforming vacant buildings into temporary art displays.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, February 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Public art: An article in the Feb. 10 California section, about a dispute over two abstract paintings of breasts in a public art exhibition in Long Beach, incorrectly spelled the last name of an artist it quoted, Stephanie Allespach, as Allesbach.

"The public went bonkers when Janet Jackson revealed one nipple during a Super Bowl game," Simone said. "Anything that could potentially offend someone, we don't show.

"Artists do not decide what is shown and what isn't. We do," she added. "We have quality control."

Simone accused Christiana of "trying to create a fuss for publicity" and "trying to sneak these paintings in through the back door without telling me." She also said the paintings, which include depictions of bright orange and blue lopsided breasts, are "not of good quality."

Simone fears the showdown with Christiana could ruin her program's first venture into Long Beach and scare away future funders of the 3-year-old program modeled after one in San Jose.

"Who wants to fund a troublemaker?" she asked rhetorically. "Christiana is taking down the whole organization right now."

But Christiana, 40, a physical trainer and lifelong artist based in Laguna Beach, was not budging.

"Mastering depictions of nude human figures is a threshold for an artist," she said. "They are telling me my art is offensive, and that hurts."

Initially, Christiana said she was excited about the prospect of having "4 Chambers" on public display around the clock in downtown Long Beach. Many of the paintings faced the bustling sidewalk outside a commercial space at 309 Pine Avenue traversed by thousands of passersby each day. The grand opening Saturday featured live music, hors d'oeuvres and wine for friends and supporters.

But beneath her welcoming smile that night, the artist said she was concealing disappointment after learning that the abstracts had been rejected as racy. "Everything was fine until then," she said. "I was shocked."

Simone said Christiana's series was selected to be among 17 ongoing exhibitions installed throughout the city because "she went to Cal State Long Beach" and was acquainted with Phantom Galleries curator Christine Faraci.

In an interview, Faraci expressed mixed feelings about the fracas.

But she also acknowledged, "I'm disappointed that Christiana's paintings were considered as something that was not appropriate. A decision was made by Liza regarding frontal and breasts."

Given that many of the paintings deemed acceptable are abstracts of female nudes -- including some that reveal their subject's backsides -- she added, "Why there is a difference between one body part and another was not my decision."

Picasso, she added with a laugh, might have responded to the situation "with a lot of expletives."

Previous Phantom Galleries exhibitions in Los Angeles included one artist's series of stark photographs of children suffering from extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis and another artist's life-sized sculptures of bombs perched in unlikely places.

Although criteria of acceptability vary from venue to venue, Simone said, "As a blanket statement, we do not show overtly sexual nudity."

Stephanie Allesbach, an artist who recently began curating for Phantom Galleries, agreed.

"There's no censorship going on here," Allesbach said. "Liza has always been upfront about what is acceptable in public and what isn't."

Christiana would say Allesbach misses the point.

"I'm proud of my work; it is based on love, friendships and neighbors," she said. "But right now, I'm feeling bullied. I can't be involved with this anymore."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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