The Art of Darkness
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.
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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 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."
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.
Neither incident has been the basis for a finding of discrimination. And, of course, neither incident has anything to do with anyone's behavior in regard to Joe Young.
Actually, there is no hard evidence supporting Young's claim he has suffered from antigay bias at the art school--and a good deal of evidence that he is not the victim of academic homophobia.
But a lack of evidence hasn't stopped Young from complaining--and complaining--about homophobia.
Since he first wrote to his colleagues in April 1992 complaining of discrimination, Young has sought remedy for perceived slights--from the allegedly major to the very, very minor--through every available channel in the university. Young has griped about everything from his annual reviews to the quality of his university-issued computer.
His most recent letter, dated October 13, 1996, and photocopied to the usual, two-page list of recipients, accuses Julie Codell of throwing a rock through the window of his Scottsdale house--although he has absolutely no proof that she was in any way related to the broken window.
Young regularly forwards his correspondence to a list of hundreds, including Arizona Governor J. Fife Symington III, ASU and University of Arizona students, faculty and administrators, Arizona Board of Regents members, gay-rights organizations, members of the media, the American Civil Liberties Union, sex columnist Susie Bright and art academics across the country.
He acknowledges spending thousands of dollars on these mailings.
Here's where the art part comes in:
Young takes pieces of his own letters, along with copies of the meager handful of news articles that those letters have inspired, mostly in ASU's State Press, cuts them up and makes collages on huge canvases. He adds photographs of Julie Codell and religious symbols, paints over the collage--sometimes the painting is a portrait of Codell, sometimes it's a self-portrait, sometimes it consists of religious symbols and doves--incorporates his "I You Homophobia" theme and glues handfuls of beads onto the finished product.
And when the ASU School of Art refuses each year to accept Young's studio artwork as satisfying the requirement that he conduct research in his field--Young is employed as an art historian, not a studio artist--he cries foul.
Which necessitates more letters, which are grist for more art, which, of course, does not satisfy Young's research requirement the next time around.
You get the picture.
Whether ASU School of Art students, faculty and administrators are more or less homophobic than the population at large probably will never be determined in an empirical fashion. But one thing is certain: Many of those students, faculty and administrators are terrified of Joe Young.
And it's not because he's gay.
Of the almost two dozen gallery owners, art critics, consultants, gay-rights activists and ASU faculty, administrators and students interviewed for this story, only a few were willing to go on the record regarding Young's performance at ASU.
Privately, many say Young is volatile and meanspirited. They fear that if they speak out, they might end up as subjects in Young's next painting series. A few even fear for Julie Codell's safety.
One ASU employee, who asked not to be identified by name, says, "This is really borderline hate speech. The person with the hate speech problem is Joe, not Julie."
Codell refuses to discuss Young or defend herself against his thinly documented accusations. She doesn't really have to.
For all his piles and piles of alleged documentation, Young has been unable to convince those one would assume to be his natural allies--the American Association of University Professors, the ASU faculty's gay and lesbian association, known as Ubiquity, or major gay publications--that he is a victim of discrimination.
"Ubiquity doesn't have much to say about Joe Young's situation, and I personally don't have much to say about it," Dawn Bates, an associate professor of English and member of Ubiquity, says in a message left in response to a request for an interview. ". . . to tell you the honest truth, in my dealings with Joe Young, he has not shown himself to be a very reasonable person, and so I hesitate to get myself involved in any way that would make me come into contact with him again."
Young insists the fact that he has been ignored is further evidence that he is a victim of homophobia.
In a 1995 letter to an ASU grievance committee, he wrote, "The response to my repeated pleas for justice and assistance has been a conspiracy of silence regarding unethical conduct on the part of the university administration and faculty. Like a female rape victim who is blamed for being responsible for her attack, I have been blamed for the transgressions of my superiors who I have proven to have repeatedly lied about me."
In fact, a careful review of eight thick three-ring binders provided by Young to New Times--binders packed with Young's writings, annual reviews and correspondence from ASU faculty and administrators over the past four years--found no concrete evidence of homophobia directed at Young, or at anyone else in the ASU art school.
Joe Young was born and raised in Los Angeles. He can't recall a time when he didn't want to be an artist; his mother drew, and, he says, everyone in his family was artistic. He received his master's degree in art history from the University of California-Los Angeles, and worked for 15 years at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as an assistant curator of drawings.
In the late '70s, Young accepted an offer to teach the history of art criticism at ASU. He bought the little brick house in central Scottsdale, where he still lives, and settled in to teach, write and paint.
The first 13 years of Young's time at ASU were uneventful, he says. He was granted tenure under then-art-school director Leonard Lehrer, eventually rising to the position of associate professor. Young was also named director of the Harry Wood Art Gallery.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, Young wrote art criticism for the Scottsdale Progress, until the paper's publisher refused to print a review critical of a show at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. (The publisher at the time was a member of the board of the Scottsdale Cultural Council, which oversees funding and operations of the Center for the Arts.)
Since the early '90s, however, Young hasn't had time to write art criticism. He has been busy writing grievances against Julie Codell and other ASU administrators.
On a recent morning, Young sips cappuccino in a downtown Scottsdale cafe and relates the story of those grievances. Initially, he is gracious and genteel, a 57-year-old man with wire-rimmed glasses, a bushy white mustache and thinning, silver hair combed carefully across his head. He smiles pleasantly, makes idle chitchat as papers are arranged and iced tea is stirred. He seems eager to make a new friend.
But as Young tells his story, anger spreads across his face, and the cadence of his speech quickens. After a while, he is spitting his words across the table.
His conversation, like his writing, is hard to follow.
But most of his complaints appear to center on what Young claims are the three major examples of homophobia in the ASU School of Art:
* The 1992 meeting in which, Young claims, Codell told him he was to be terminated. In university memorandums, Codell has repeatedly explained that she was misunderstood. She was, she insists, trying to give Young advance warning of possible budget cuts--advance warning that she was not required to give and that many "on the bubble" employees would appreciate receiving.
* The denial of tenure to Diana Hulick.
Hulick, a photography professor, was denied tenure in 1991. She and Young have claimed the decision was based on her sexual orientation--she is a lesbian--noting that she has been published extensively in her field and is regarded as a very good professor. Hulick sued ASU and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. As part of the settlement, she is prohibited from speaking about her case, and she declined an interview request from New Times. ASU officials also declined to comment.
The public record does not include a finding that the tenure decision was based on her sexual orientation.
* The case of a former sculpture student in the School of Art who was brutally beaten in 1992. His assailant, a fellow art student, was also a karate teacher. A Tempe Police Department report details the fight: The two men, who were friends, drank a bottle of whiskey and a six-pack of beer each. Once intoxicated, they began practicing karate moves and the inexperienced student was severely injured.
Neither man could be reached for comment.
In his correspondence, circulated to literally hundreds of people, Young has repeatedly made the assertion that one student is bisexual, and the other beat him up because he is homophobic. There is no suggestion of such a motivation in the police report. Young's other documentation does not support the assertion, either. Yet Young insists that Codell and ASU have been negligent in their duties because they allowed the winner of the fight to remain at the university.
The remainder of Young's complaints focus on his own situation. And since the original discussion of his possible budget-related termination--which did not come to pass--Young's complaints have gone from the grand to the picayune. It is as though he must search harder and harder to find any shred of evidence that might be twisted to support his theory that he is a victim of discrimination.
In 1994, Young filed a grievance regarding an "unsatisfactory" performance review he had received. The grievance went all the way up the chain of command to ASU President Lattie Coor. Coor concurred with the grievance committee's conclusion: Young was not being discriminated against based on his sexual orientation. In the end, the review was re-evaluated, but the determination was the same: unsatisfactory performance.
The following year, Young filed another grievance, even though his performance had been officially rated "satisfactory." He believed he deserved a "high merit" rating. That complaint is still working its way through the university grievance system.
Young has complained about other things, too.
He says that, because he is gay, he was denied a research assistant at the Harry Wood Gallery.
Because he is gay, Young says, the Harry Wood Gallery's budget was cut.
He says he has an inferior computer--because he is gay.
He says he asked Codell's assistant to inform his students that he had to cancel class at the last minute earlier this year--he had to attend a conference, he says--but she didn't do it. Because Young is gay.
Young says he suspects Codell threw a rock through his window because he is gay.
And Young firmly believes he has endured an abusive work schedule the entire time he's worked at ASU. The only reason he can come up with for this vindictive scheduling, he says, is his sexual orientation.
It's because he's gay.
One of Young's major gripes revolves around ASU's refusal to give him credit during his annual reviews for the studio art he produces each year. He says credit is withheld because his artwork focuses on ASU's homophobia. Codell and Young's colleagues say Young is employed as an art historian, not a studio artist, and he should undertake research in his field if he wants credit for doing university-level research.
Young is right about one thing: ASU's refusal to consider his studio art as research has reduced his performance ratings. But that is not the only reason he has received less-than-stellar reviews at the university.
As early as 1989, before Codell came to ASU, Young was receiving low evaluations from students he had taught. That year, according to his review, students ranked him 31st out of 46 professors in the School of Art, and ninth of the 11 art history professors.
In her 1991 review of Young, Codell wrote, "We need to see some definite improvement in research, teaching and service."
Mark Fuller, who took an art history survey course from Young in 1995, isn't gentle about the teaching aspect.
"There's no nice way to put it," Fuller says. "I think without doubt he was the worst teacher I'd seen. I mean, he made my high school teachers look good by comparison. He was just embarrassing."
Fuller, who received his undergraduate and law degrees from ASU, took Young's art history class because he was thinking about changing professions. Fuller didn't know anything about Young; the class fit his schedule.
The course covered the history of art from the Renaissance to contemporary times, and Fuller says he was astonished when Young skipped over entire historic periods.
"He made me not like it," Fuller says. "He took probably the most interested person in class and made me just sort of despise coming to class."
Fuller and other students who asked not to be identified note that Young often spoke of his personal life in class--and in ways they considered improper or unprofessional. Fuller says he wasn't disturbed when Young told the class he was gay. What bothered Fuller was Young's assertion in an art history class that his sister had been sexually abused by their father as a child.
Another student who found Young's incest allegation disturbing and inappropriate says he couldn't help wondering: "What is this really teaching me about art history? Shouldn't you be spending this time introducing me to new artists that I don't know about?"
The student, who is gay, says Young also spoke incessantly of his battles with Codell. The student says he's never seen any evidence of homophobia at the School of Art.
"I think he's blowing it out of proportion," the student says.
People who are willing to go on the record about Joe Young's complaints against ASU almost invariably fall into two camps: those who disagree with him and those who say they haven't reviewed Young's material thoroughly enough to make up their minds.
Young's art dealers in Scottsdale and New York City, his mentor Leonard Lehrer (now director of the School of Art and Art Professions at New York University) and the professor who invited him to show his work in West Virginia this fall all say they don't know whether he's being discriminated against.
Carol Bernstein, a University of Arizona biology professor and the Arizona representative for the American Association of University Professors, says she's not certain Young has enough documentation to convince her to write a story for her organization's publication.
Reidun Ovrebo, chair of the art department and associate professor of art at West Virginia State College, wants to be on the record: Exhibiting Young's artwork was not a signal that she or her university support Young's claims of homophobia at ASU.
"We don't know the case," she says. "He was invited as an artist. So in that sense we wash our hands of that specific case because we don't have all that information."
Ovrebo says Young was invited to her school because, as a historically black institution, West Virginia State is sensitive to issues of discrimination. She says she did not realize Young's work was solely about himself.
She says, "It became kind of his personal issue, and people did respond negatively to that, because that was not what was expected."
A few people are willing to go on the record and say they believe Joe Young is just plain wrong when he accuses Julie Codell of homophobia.
Micky Abel Turby graduated from ASU with a master's in art history in 1993. She is now enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of Texas-Austin. Turby took two classes from Codell, and laughs at the suggestion that Codell is homophobic.
She says, "She's very, very liberal-minded, and her theory classes are just all-encompassing--as in, anything left field, we'll take it into consideration. I find it really hard to believe that she would even in the remotest corner of her mind have that kind of an inkling."
Others echo the sentiment. Shelly Cohn, executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, calls Codell "a good ombudsman and representative for the school of art."
Marilyn Zeitlin, director of the University Art Museum, says, "I have never seen the slightest evidence of prejudice of any kind from her [Codell]. In fact, she's a very good spokesperson against sexism of any kind, whether it's homophobia or against women. It's part of her intellectual work and part of her person.
"A less appropriate target is hard to imagine."
Joe Young is eager for the publication of this story, although he knows it may be unflattering to him.
"Different people see things from different vantage points," he says. "My thinking is as long as the points of concern are brought out--however they're discussed--I think it will be a positive thing."
Young sits patiently for a two-hour photography shoot, during which his broken garage door has to be maneuvered carefully, for fear it will crush writer, photographer or subject. Yes, Young tells the photographer, he will certainly incorporate clippings or copies of the New Times story about him into his future works of art.
"That's what I do," he explains.
Young is on sabbatical this year, and, he says, relieved to be away from ASU. But his letter-writing campaign continues.
"At this point," he says, "I've exhausted every recourse available to me through the university."
He says he will continue to follow the university grievance process, but won't file a lawsuit. "I just think that there's a principle here, and I'm just going to follow it to the end. And I expect to be terminated within two years."
And what will he do if he is fired?
"I will be destroyed professionally, that's what I will do," he says.
"There are no jobs. I've tried for five years. Do you think I haven't actively sought to go anywhere I could? I'm 57 years old. I'm overpaid. I'm overqualified. They're eliminating tenure at many of the universities around the United States, so where can I go? I'm stuck here. And the only reason I've stayed through all this is because I'm a practicing Roman Catholic, and I'm a religious one.
"As far as I'm concerned, this is a matter of a spiritual battle, and I am not willing to just give in to this kind of oppression.
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