By Ezra Salkin
Ribald was the word my mother used at dinner the night after I took her and my father to see the Art in the Raw exhibition held April 24.
According to dictionary.com, ribald is defined as, “vulgar or indecent in speech, language, etc: coarsely mocking, abusive or irreverent; scurrilous.”
After walking up the stairs to the gallery, housed in a small hidden building partitioned off from B. Matthew’s, a Bay Street pub, the first things to meet my eyes were phallic suggestive balloons dangling awkwardly from the ceiling. They practically tickled the hairs on the heads of the gawkers in attendance.
Then I ran into a clothesline of sagging, oversized women’s underwear with provocative innuendos sown into the latex. Reflecting on that first impression, I can see how my Jewish mother could arrive at this conclusion.
When viewed next to most of the traditional painting and photography on display, those details of atmospheric decor were about as tame as a jack-o-lantern in the walkway leading up to Marilyn Manson’s house.
My eyes fell on a painting of the Pope stripped down, with a large ghostlike visage of Jesus hanging over him, in a myriad of disorderly color.
The next things to stand out in the overwhelming space are were a series marked by its sheer simplicity. It consisted of two adjacent photographs hanging in the hallway that connects the two rooms of the gallery. The first is a male nude, the second, a female. In both, the heads are cropped out. The female is flabby and doesn’t attempt to hide her private area which she doesn’t seem interested in keeping well groomed.
She looks at the viewed head on, as she hunches in a squatting position. She is titled “Juliet.” The feebly endowed male is in no great shape himself. We see his gelatinous, unattractively hairy form in profile. He stands more upright then his female counterpart. He’s titled “Romeo.”
Most of the rest of the exhibition was a blur of fornicating, discolored demons with twisted faces that resemble old-world carnival masks. They proudly flaunted iridescent orifices and sometimes enormous, sometimes miniscule, genitalia.
The first artist I spoke to is Lindsey Johnson, a recent SCAD graduate in illustration. She calls her painting “The Death of Eros.” It’s a surreal mixed-media painting done in oils and spray paint. Two hands inject a pomegranate with a frightening looking syringe. Next to this is an accompanying image of the same pomegranate giving birth to many much smaller pomegranates, each attached to what looks like dancing pairs of human legs.
She said the theme of her piece is artificial insemination, which she calls a “very unnatural process. It’s disgusting and I wanted to show it in a disgusting way.”
Johnson said the original translation of the Hebrew text of the Book of Genesis, the forbidden fruit was actually a pomegranate. It’s also symbol of fertility across different cultures, which is why she opted to use it. The spray paint manifests itself in the silver background. It is there to look metallic and emphasize the process’s unnatural nature.
The second artist I interviewed was Andrew Arrasmith who graduated from SCAD with a painting degree. He describes the event as a “humble mad house.” He looks over my shoulder as I scribble notes about his piece.
“Woah, is that ancient Aramaic?” he asked in all seriousness.
“No, that’s just my handwriting.”
His painting is called “A Moment Longer.” It’s a large, elaborately detailed oil painting of a family of three vibrant neon-green skeletons. Every muscle and striation is visible. A father, mother and child are locked in a tight embrace and float like ghosts over a giant inferno under the watchful eye of the moon.
Arrasmith says he originally painted the piece for his sister, who was pregnant at the time and asked for a green field under the moon. However, as he was working on the piece, his sister was in a terrible car accident and nearly lost the child. When Arrasmith heard, he began painting over everything he had done so far, changing it into what its current form. The concept revolved around the struggle to “cling to life, and push through,” he said.
The baby ended up fine, but after seeing what the piece had metamorphosed into, his sister didn’t want it anymore.
“Look, the moon is still there,” he said indignantly.
Denielle Nigretto and Antonio Ramon, the two SCAD alumni who put the event together, had a different take than my traumatized mother and don’t view the exhibition as ribald. Nigretto, originally from Albuquerque, and Ramon, from New York, had a bit of a culture shock upon arriving in the South, finding it too conservative for their liking. They felt the same way about SCAD which, Nigretto says, won’t publish nudes and is guilty of a fair share of censorship when it comes to controversial sexual subjects. She wishes SCAD would “try and think outside the box more.”
“Sex is an intimate thing, yet it is something that people try to avoid. It’s like going to the bathroom. People want you to think that they don’t go to the bathroom. Everybody goes to the bathroom. So why not make a show of it?” Nigretto said.
In addition to making a statement, Nigretto and Ramon hoped that Art in the Raw would serve as a great way to get local artists in touch with one another and to facilitate future collaborations like this.
“We wanted to get people from all walks of life to come outside of themselves,” Nigretto added. They hope this multimedia project will give the 25 artists who participated public exposure. This includes musicians as well, as there was live music at the event. The performers on scene were By Monthly Minute who Ramon described as a mix between Pearl Jam and Phish and Zachariah Jones, who plays acoustic.
Ramon said they had 100 plus people turn out for the event.
“It’s phenomenal. This far surpasses our expectations,” he said.
Nigretto is the artist responsible for the “Romeo” and “Juliet.” She’s also responsible for other photographed nudes, some cartoons resembling images from the Kama Sutra– taking the traditional Hindu depictions and presenting them in a contemporary Western setting. In addition, she also has oil paintings where she juxtaposed her face onto the bodies of porn stars in the midst of their performance.
I don’t know if I’d call the event ribald. I’d call it interesting—especially when the parents are in town.