Risk is a relative term, but as the theme of this year's Spirit & Place Festival, it gave staff at the Indianapolis Art Center the perfect opportunity to explore the gallery collection at the Kinsey Institute for Sex, Gender, and Reproduction - something they'd considered doing for a couple of years. IAC curator Patrick Flaherty worked with Kinsey curator Catherine Johnson-Roehr to create Touchy Subjects, a three-part exhibition featuring works from the Kinsey and artists Kyle Herrington and Jedediah Johnson.
The two curators - plus Herrington - "discussed the themes of risk and humor in the context of sexual behavior and expression," according to Johnson-Roehr, "and then selected artworks to illustrate those themes." Their choices range from the nineteenth century to the present, and include a traditional still life featuring sex toys, a detailed copper etching of men lined up outside a bordello, photographs, 1950s cartoons and a disco ball shaped like a penis.
"I was thinking that it would be a risk for the art center to show the Kinsey's works, but the artists are also taking a risk in creating very sexually-charged work," says Flaherty.
With such work, says Herrington, "the subject matter doesn't invalidate the technique. An artist can be respected for his or her proficiency with the medium. Just because an artist has an unsavory topic doesn't make him a bad painter."
His mixed media pieces in Catcalls explore risk in different ways. Catcalls, hip hop phrases, and humorous quotes from pop culture figures like Miley Cyrus and Honey Boo Boo hover on galactic backgrounds, and will line the Basile Exhibition Hall. Will the words seem more aggressive for their size, or do they take on completely different meanings in a new context? Floating words in a vast space can also make them seem meaningless or trivial, says Herrington.
In some ways, Johnson's work is also more provocative than, say, the alphabet collage of porn penises on loan from the Kinsey. In The Makeout Project, Johnson slathers on lipstick and plants a kiss (usually several) on a variety of subjects of both sexes and all ages. He then documents his subjects with crisp photographs in vivid color. Often the lipstick looks painted or swirled on, but it's the ominous, forceful presence of Johnson's arm, reaching into the photo to cup the right cheek of each person he has kissed, as well as their varied expressions, that remind you just how different the universal experience of a kiss can be for each person.
Touchy Subjects opens September 27, but will continue through November 24 as part of the Spirit & Place Festival. It includes interactive activities in the IAC library, such as an Art History Peep Show and "Danger Dice," which are rolled to determine the risky actions, one verbal and one physical, that a player must take. (For example, tell a brutal truth while looking someone in the eyes).
On November 6, Johnson-Roehr will join Flaherty, Herrington, and Johnson at the IAC from 6 to 8 p.m. to moderate a walk-through of the galleries, discussing the works on display. Touchy Subjects is one of five nominees for the "Risk Prize," denoting the riskiest event of the festival.
IAC staff are sensitive to the variety of patrons visiting the center, and will situate the Kinsey material in the Hurt and Clowes Gallery, using movable walls to provide discreet views, with more aggressive pieces out of sight unless patrons pass the entry point. Staff will also post disclaimers about the strong sexual content, encouraging mature audiences. "We're not trying to shock people," says Flaherty, "but if we have a good reason to show challenging art work, we don't want to censor it."
"There are many entry points to being a viewer or taking in art," adds Ben Shine, the IAC's director of communications, "and humor is one entry point that we feel isn't explored very often, but exists everywhere."
Herrington agrees. "For me, humor is a really important stepping stone into more serious issues. I find that if you start out with a joke and loosen somebody up, they're more comfortable with you, and then you can talk about subjects like religion, sexuality, or politics."