How Phoenix Artist Eric Kasper's Controversial, Canceled Bisbee Art Show Got a Second Chance

Phoenix artist Eric Kasper caused quite the stir in Bisbee last fall, when Windows Gallery at the Copper Queen Plaza displayed his work alongside that of Ty McNeeley in an exhibition called "Spirits of the West."

The show's aim was to blend Kasper's eerie, sometimes ghostly figures with McNeeley's photographs of abandoned buildings, according to gallery co-founder Meggen Connolley. But just days after its November 14 reception, it turned into a censorship scandal for the small town's arts community and resulted in the gallery shuttering.

Now, the show has a second shot at engaging the Bisbee arts community, as Connolley has teamed up with Bisbee gallery Sam and Poe to display the exhibition — including works that had been deemed offensive and pornographic by some. Renamed "The Appropriate Show," the exhibition opens at 6 p.m. on Saturday, January 9.

While Bisbee residents know what they're getting themselves into this time, it's unclear what the reception will be like, and the show will without a doubt feature what might be Kasper's most controversial painting. It's called Photograph

Kasper says he's shown Photograph at least five times, maybe more, definitely once at downtown Phoenix's monOrchid. It's an older painting of his. "It's probably the strongest image that I've ever used," he says of the work, which portrays what look to be sinister elders looking out as babies engage in a sex act.

"The idea is that the man has raised his daughter to be submissive to men, and the woman has raised her son to take advantage of women," Kasper says. "It is about forcing beliefs on the next generation and giving the children gender roles from birth. No alternative thought will be tolerated, they will raise their children by whatever rules their interpretation of the holy book tells them."

The imagery is striking, but Kasper says nobody had ever complained about it.

That is, until it was shown at Windows Gallery in Bisbee. 

"Spirits of the West" received a warm welcome from Bisbee residents, Kasper says. Other works he showed included a painting of a woman sitting near a man unclothed from the waist down, pinup-meets-rodeo imagery, and a series of works depicting horses with emphasized genitalia.There were hundreds of locals in attendance, including Copper Queen Plaza building manager Scott Ries and building liaison to Windows Gallery Michael Page. 

Neither Ries nor Page responded to calls and e-mails from New Times

"Everybody really liked it," Kasper says of the reactions he got that night. "They were complimenting me on the art and saying that they were happy that I brought it to the city of Bisbee and that it's art that makes you think."

However, after four people, including Bisbee musician and visual artist Carolyn Toronto, voiced concern over Kasper's work, Photograph in particular, Ries met with Connolley and her husband, Windows Gallery co-owner Eric Meyer. According to Connolley, Ries wanted seven works that were deemed offensive removed from the show.

Instead of submitting to censorship, Connolley says, she and Meyer chose to take down the exhibition and immediately close their gallery, as well as a boutique called Magnetic Threads that Connolley operated in the same plaza. 

"They gave up pretty much everything just to protect my art, to fight art censorship," Kasper says.

Toronto says she voiced concern over Photograph to Connolley before the show opened, suggesting that perhaps it wasn't best to feature the painting in a way that made it viewable through a window that looked out on the street. She had worked with Connolley and sold T-shrits through Connolley's shop. Their takes on what happened differ starkly.

Toronto says that she mentioned the potentially offensive painting to Page in passing. Connolley says that Toronto interrupted a meeting of the Copper Queen owners and stakeholders to complain about the painting.

Either way, it's not difficult to imagine people having strong responses to Photograph. And Kasper knows that. "I wanted to get a reaction from people," he says of creating the provocative work, "but I didn't want it to be this extreme."

Shortly after the show was taken down, Connolley wanted to find a way to show it again. She found Sam and Poe Gallery, a contemporary art space owned by married artists Poe Dismuke and Sam Woolcott. They'll co-present the show with Connolley, though as of this writing, they hadn't decided how or where Photograph would be displayed. 

"In my mind, it's a greater question regarding interpretation," Connolley says. "When someone's interpretation becomes the only interpretation. That doesn't just happen with art, it happens with any subject matter. The bigger question here is: When does someone get to decide that their interperetation is the only interpretation?"

"The Appropriate Show" will open at Bisbee's Sam and Poe Gallery, 24 Main Street, at 6 p.m. on Saturday, January 9. 
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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski