Culture News

Executive Director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts Writes "Bullshit" on a Photograph by Tony Zeh

On the opening night of Eye Lounge's annual fundraiser show, art community members mingled and snatched up small-scale works donated by local artists.

The show's an opportunity for the Eye Lounge to raise money, for collectors to snatch up pieces they recognize (each is signed by the artist on the back and is left unlabeled) and for artists to experiment with size and medium -- and in photographer Tony Zeh's case, message.

But Zeh's message didn't last long before he says it was defaced by the Executive Director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Bob Booker.

Zeh's photo was a self portrait on matte paper that had a large red circle and line through it: "Arizona Commission on the Arts: Visual Artists Need Not Apply," the piece read.

It was Zeh's reaction to the commission's project grant, which he applied for last year and was turned down for. He says he feels the process was unfair and based on a skewed panel. (The majority of the jury was of a literary background, and the majority of the grants given were to local writers.)

"I decided to make a piece in response to that," Zeh says. "I went ahead and made variations to the image, and put it in the show as a commentary piece. I just wanted to poke fun at the situation and have a conversation."

On Friday night, Zeh was talking to someone at Eye Lounge when he says  he turned around and saw Booker writing on his photograph -- "BULLSHIT" Booker wrote over the red circle before signing his name and putting the piece back on the wall.

Both Zeh and Booker admit the atmosphere was a little crazy. Booker says he had talked to Zeh a few times before writing on the photograph at Eye Lounge. And Zeh says he had no idea it was going to happen and was pulled in for a photo in front of the picture with Booker right afterward.

"I thought it was a hoot," says Booker. "Tony had two pieces in the show; I purchased one, re-appropriated it, and put it back up for sale. And then it resold, so essentially [Eye Lounge] got double the price ... The message here is that Arts Commission is here for all artists in all parts of the state in all media."

Booker argues he was acting as an artist that night -- not as a representative of the Commission. He says it was his right to make a commentary on a piece of work and that, while this kind of "discussion" between artists happens all the time in public spaces through street art (even on the west-facing, exterior wall of Eye Lounge), that discussion between artists in the gallery has also had a large part of art history.

"Look at the work of Andy Warhol, who often appropriates images like the soup cans or the image of the Kennedy Assassination," says Booker. "When an artist appropriates the work of another artist, it becomes collaboration ... The Eye Lounge piece sold twice, and an artist bought the final product. Maybe my mark made the piece more valuable."

And while Zeh disagrees -- the piece was definitely not a collaboration -- he says that his photograph ultimately served its purpose.

"I'm not going to get bent out of shape over it," Zeh says. "It raised money for Eye Lounge. And I'm not totally pissed off, but I would never do to someone else's work. There are a lot of conceptual artists out there that will take a piece that an artist worked hard on and took time to build, scribble on it, and take credit. I'm just not that kind of person."

The piece continued to hang (as Booker's piece, Zeh argues, and as a collaborative piece, says Booker) at Eye Lounge all weekend, causing buzz about the place it has in the gallery and the precedent it sets for gallery behavior.

"I think [Booker], being a part of the Arizona Commission, to respond that way has a bad light," says Zeh. "I don't think it speaks too highly of the Commission, and I know I'll never apply through the Commission again."

Ultimately, Booker asserts that his actions were not defacing the piece.

"As an artist, I purchased that work; I made a change," says Booker. "I have that right. I'm acting as an artist ... I re-appropriated the piece, which appeared to have no copyright. I had a little fun, and I'm sorry that maybe Tony didn't. Life's too short to not have fun."

The 6x6 show at Eye Lounge will continue through the First Friday of April. Pieces are now $20 each.

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Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton