Andi Campognone isn’t the type of woman who’ll have her vision compromised. She’s a staunch advocate of free artistic expression. As the associate director of the Riverside Art Museum, she lived at peace with her ideological underpinnings as she strove to provide challenging, contemporary art to the Inland Empire. That is, until a few weeks ago when she was giving a panel discussion at the museum. Afterwards, while candidly talking about art censorship among people who had attended the talk, someone called Campognone out.
“He told me that the (Riverside Art Museum) engages in censorship, and that they had seen some works covered up with plastic bags. I was so embarrassed! I couldn’t believe it,” Campognone says.
The questionable piece, entitled “Little Debbie” and displayed in the museum’s current Material Girls exhibit (which closes Saturday) is an embroidery by New York-based artist Orly Cogan, who stitched a woman sitting on a blanket in the nude enjoying some Little Debbie cakes. While the woman’s naughty bits are clearly visible, the piece doesn’t exude sexuality so much as it tries to offer vague platitudes on the feminine body image. The Material Girls show celebrates women’s achievements in the arts, offering as many different perspectives on femininity as there are contributing artists.
“(The embroidery) shows a girl who’s dealing with her own body issues, it’s not some super detailed air-brushed porno piece or anything,” Campognone says.
Despite the fact that we live in an age where it’s acceptable to expose children to images of violence in movies and on the local TV news (remember the freeway chase ending a few years back that cut into kiddie programming on KTLA just in time for throngs of youngsters to see the guy set himself on fire, tear off his pants, then shoot himself in the head with a shotgun?), the subject matter was deemed by RAM higher-ups to be much too challenging—and much too naked—for younger children attending the museum, and was covered up with plastic bags.
Campognone recognized the sheathing as an act of blatant art censorship, and brought her concerns to the museum’s executive director, Daniel Foster, who didn’t promise her that the museum would stop censoring nudity.
“I knew that nothing was going to change, so I handed in my resignation,” Campognone says. “I guess Riverside is still too conservative to deal with progressive art.”
She was at the RAM for two years, bringing artistically and academically important works to the IE. Before Campognone’s arrival, the museum primarily housed pastoral, traditional-style works that featured a lot of landscapes—not exactly cutting-edge fare. Campognone’s vision was to turn the museum into a forum for progressive art and artistic dialogue. She also wanted to educate people on the area’s historical significance in the art world, and managed to round up exhibits that showcased important SoCal artists—especially those who worked in the IE—from various other museums and private collections.
“I wanted to show people that (the Inland Empire) is full of culture and important artistic creating,” Campognone tells the Weekly.
Although he declined an interview, Foster says in an e-mailed statement that the work was covered so that second grade students—most about 7 years old—could view the exhibit. Some of the other installments in the show deal with female sexuality and non-sexuality in less graphic terms.
Though Foster says it’s the museum’s policy to not discriminate against artists for producing questionable, provocative work, the RAM makes a special exception for field trip groups of young children. The museum doesn’t cover works automatically, but they will alter an exhibit—plastic bags and all—when they get a request (and apparently, they did). In the same e-mail, Foster calls “Little Debbie” an “important element to the overall curatorial vision and thesis of the exhibit.”
The RAM isn’t the only Riverside art venue that covers over pieces so as to not to offend the delicate sensibilities of young museum-goers (or, more accurately, their parents). Leslie Brown, a gallery coordinator at Riverside Community College, also has to hide work from children’s groups that depict people in various states of undress. They’re currently hosting a figurative exhibit with nude figures.
“Unless parents have consented, it’s a slippery slope, especially when they’re there through the public school system,” Brown says. But unlike Campognone, Brown thinks that censorship isn’t necessarily endemic to conservative Riverside, but is indicative of a larger social phenomenon.
She contends that the problem stems from sexual objectification in society. It’s a bit hypocritical to expose children to a barrage of Victoria’s Secret ads and other titillating, erotic material, yet censor the artwork that they’re allowed to see as being sexual when they aren’t. She attributes this to painting’s absence of spontaneity and expendability.
“Everything in our society is seen as potentially sexual,” says Brown. “We’re not perverts. We see the nude form as beautiful and awe-inspiring.” Her own child has been exposed to painted nudes since birth, presumably without any adverse effects.
“He knows the difference between art and pornography. I think we have it backward in the U.S.—we censor art and not pornography. How will we ever have our children see the human form as beautiful, and as a godly creation, if we cover the art and not the pornography?”
Not all galleries in the area are forced to cover their artwork in order to satiate many parents’ desire to protect their children from dealing with the complex issues that come with adulthood. The University of Riverside galleries frequently host racy, daring exhibits featuring nudity aplenty, and don’t receive complaints about their nature. Division 9 Gallery owner Cosme Cordova is also in the habit of hosting provocative exhibits, such as the sexually-themed Libido. He doesn’t hear protests about his shows, either.
“Overall, I think this community is on the conservative side,” Cordova says. “But now that we’re showcasing contemporary works here, a lot of the pieces are a little more edgy. It’s something that the community is going to have to grow into.
Campognone isn’t waiting for a mass evolution of free-thinking. She has plans to open up her own gallery in the downtown Pomona arts colony. “The city of Pomona is really opening their arms to me,” Campognone says.
As for the Riverside Arts Museum, even though they’re minus one idealistic, uncompromising associate director, they still promise to expand their contemporary exhibitions, and anticipate “more challenging programming in the future.”
Even if it has to be covered up with plastic bags.