The Art of Darkness

ASU art professor Joe Young has spent four years telling the world he's the victim of institutional homophobia. But he's no victim. He's the incredibly persistent aggressor in a long, vicious game of smear-the-boss.

Joe Young lives in a modest brick house with a broken garage door. The garage itself doubles as Young's paint-spattered studio, where the Arizona State University art history professor stores the product of his years as an artist.

Dozens of canvases stacked vertically around the room track the history of Young's career as a painter: a series on flags, another on sexual taboos, and his latest collection, "I * You Homophobia: The Arizona State University Series."

But Joe Young doesn't love--or even have--irrational hatred or fear of homosexuals. Actually, he's gay.

The homophobic one, Young insists, is Julie Codell, director of the School of Art at Arizona State University and Young's boss. Like Young's previous work, the homophobia series consists of big and bright works, composed of layers of collaged newspaper articles, memorandums and photos from magazines, painted over and adorned with gaudy beads. Most of the homophobia paintings include a representation--sometimes a painted portrait, sometimes Xeroxed photos, sometimes both--of Julie Codell.

All include the message: I * You Homophobia.
For the past four years, Young has been on a one-man mission to convince the world that Julie Codell is homophobic, and that she and other administrators at ASU are targeting Young because he is openly gay. Despite what Young insists is voluminous documentation, he has been unable to prove his case to anyone--not to gay activists, not to university officials, not even to his own art dealers. There is, meanwhile, remarkably widespread agreement that Codell and the ASU art school have exhibited a great deal of tolerance of Young's antics and very little that could reasonably be construed as antigay behavior.

Even so, Young has managed to spread his message around the country.
"I ยช You Homophobia: The Arizona State University Series" has been featured in one-man exhibitions in galleries in San Francisco and New York, and at West Virginia State College of Art. Young's portraits of Codell the Homophobe have even hung in ASU's University Art Museum during faculty exhibitions.

"We show them real prominently," museum director Marilyn Zeitlin says. "And Julie and I usually stand in front of it during the openings, so that there can be no accusation that we are in any way censoring his work."

The series also appeared at Fagen-Peterson Gallery in Scottsdale last January. Gene Fagen, who has exhibited Young's work for more than a decade, says he was delighted with the show--even though he has no idea whether Julie Codell is homophobic and has taken no effort to find out.

Fagen has never met Codell. Neither, he says, had the couple from Houston who bought one of the Codell portraits during the January show.

"They said that they were going to have a cocktail party and invite faculty from the university--whatever university in Houston--and invite Julie Codell to come to their home," Fagen says.

"The fight with words with the university is important," he adds, "but the paintings, you know, a picture's worth a thousand words. It's incredible. In this battle, it's exactly so, because the paintings tell the whole story so wonderfully."

And what if the story isn't true? What if, as Codell's colleagues and students insist, she is an intelligent, tolerant feminist, someone who has tried to run a cash-poor department, develop new programs and rid her faculty of deadwood?

What if Julie Codell isn't homophobic at all?
Fagen doesn't even pause. "It wouldn't make any difference," he says. "The work is good."

Whether Joe Young's art is good or bad has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of his discrimination claim. And if that claim is false--and the available evidence suggests it is--he has been allowed to spend the past four years torturing Julie Codell in a most public and humiliating manner.

Young claims to be a devout Roman Catholic, a true believer in the adage, "Do unto others . . ."

His actions don't seem to match those words.
Young's problems with Julie Codell and the ASU School of Art began officially, and rather suddenly, on April 29, 1992.

That is the day, he says, when Codell told him he was to be terminated. According to a memo Young distributed to School of Art faculty, Codell informed him there was a possibility his position--teaching the history of art criticism--would be eliminated because of budget cuts.

Young wrote, ". . . I do not know why I have been singled out with nine years of tenure unless it could be the fact that I am openly homosexual. If that is the case, I feel very sorry for all of you."

Codell responded with a memo explaining that she had only intended to give Young warning of what might happen to his position. She didn't respond to the accusations of homophobia.

In his voluminous and repeated letters of complaint, addressed to art-school administrators but copied to dozens of people and institutions across the country, Young has repeatedly cited two incidents as evidence that the art school discriminates against homosexuals. One involves a lesbian professor who was denied tenure. The other deals with two art students who got in a fight off campus; Young contends the cause of the fight was homophobia.

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