Culture News

Here's What Happened After New City Studio Censored Malena Barnhart's Art

Lynn Trimble
Entrance to New City Studio on Central Avenue.
A handful of artists staged a protest outside New City Studio in central Phoenix on Friday, January 5, after the gallery refused to display a piece of art created by Malena Barnhart.

The arts venue's curator Nicolas Rascona declined to display Barnhart's Natural Skin Color Inflatable Love Doll, which comprises a blow-up doll covered in children's stickers, as part of an exhibition called "In Sight II" that opened on Friday, January 5, because the gallery does not display "sexualized nudity."

Barnhart considers the rejection of her work a clear case of censorship. And she isn't alone.

"I was told that my work for 'In Sight II' is unfortunately being censored from the show," Barnhart told Phoenix New Times by phone on Thursday, January 4.

By definition, censorship is the suppression of public work deemed objectionable. But Rascona says that's not what happened here.

"In Sight II" opened on First Friday, January 5. Barnhart's work wasn't included, and a sign saying the work was censored wasn't posted as promised. With nothing posted online about the gallery's decision at that point, only event organizers and artists knew Barnhart's work was excluded.
New City Studio is part of New City Church, a Bible-based evangelical church on Central Avenue across the street from Burton Barr Central Library. The venue has presented group art shows for more than two years. Several have been organized by Rascona, who is also an artist.

click to enlarge Exhibition signage for "in Sight II" at New City Studio. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Exhibition signage for "in Sight II" at New City Studio.
Lynn Trimble
But "In Sight II" worked a little differently. The exhibition was supposed to include visual art and literary works created by 18 pairs of local creatives. Artists Cherie Buck-Hutchison and Ashley Czajkowski chose participating artists and led the art side of the collaboration with Four Chambers Press.

Visual artists were paired with writers selected through an open call issued by Four Chambers Press, a Phoenix-based literary magazine and small press that often collaborates with other creatives in the local community.

In March 2016, Four Chambers Press undertook a similar collaboration with Eye Lounge, an artist collective in Roosevelt Row. "In Sight II" isn't an Eye Lounge project, though both Barnhart and Czajkowski are members of the collective.

Buck-Hutchison and Czajkowski managed the art side of the collaboration, which included choosing participating artists. Buck-Hutchison is one of the 18 artists they selected. Neither Buck-Hutchison nor Czajkowski set any guidelines or parameters for participating artists in terms of what they could show. 

Several months ago, the two met with Rascona at New City Studio to talk about exhibition. At the time, he indicated that New City Studio had restrictions about showing nudity. Subtle nudity was okay, he told them. But sexualized nudity was not.

But Buck-Hutchison and Czajkowski left that meeting thinking they'd achieved this compromise: If an artist's work was offensive to New City Studio, it would at least be shown during January First and Third Friday. The rest of the time, it would be taken down to accommodate children who attend programs there. Or so they understood at the time.

That's why they didn't pass the nudity alert onto artists, Buck-Hutchison says.

click to enlarge Portion of the "In Sight II" exhibition during the opening reception on January 5 at New City Studio. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Portion of the "In Sight II" exhibition during the opening reception on January 5 at New City Studio.
Lynn Trimble
But that created a problem when organizers started installing the show.

Rascona rejected Barnhart's work when Buck-Hutchison went to drop it off on Tuesday, January 2. Barnhart was out of town, so she couldn't be at New City Studio that day. Although Buck-Hutchison and Czajkowski were the designated curators, Rascona ended up having the final say about what could be shown at New City Studio.

He insists the decision wasn't censorship.

Instead, Rascona considers the incident a misunderstanding. It's not the case, Rascona says, that he agreed the artists could show any type of work during First and Third Friday receptions. He rejected Barnhart's work after seeing it, and deciding it didn't meet New City Studio guidelines.

There's nothing on the New City Studio website that indicates they limit the types of work that can be shown there. And no written New City Studio policy was provided to "In Sight II" organizers or participating artists, Rascona says. He rejected the work due to "sexualized nudity," although he says the studio has shown other art involving nudity before.

click to enlarge Natural Skin Color Inflatable Love Doll by Malena Barnhart previously exhibited at Harry Wood Gallery. - MALENA BARNHART/PHOTO BY LYNN TRIMBLE
Natural Skin Color Inflatable Love Doll by Malena Barnhart previously exhibited at Harry Wood Gallery.
Malena Barnhart/Photo by Lynn Trimble
The type of blow-up doll Barnhart used for her piece is sold online as a sex toy. Its physical properties include exaggerated breasts and an oddly placed opening on the lower torso.

It was previously part of a 2016 group show called "Artists: In Residence" at Harry Wood Gallery on ASU's Tempe campus. At the time, Barnhart says, it didn't stir any controversy.

Like much of Barnhart's work, it explores gender stereotypes. "Women are a commodity used to sell literally everything yet we don't really have agency over our own bodies." For this particular piece, she ordered an inflatable doll online, then covered it with stickers that convey cultural expectations about girls. "It's a hard piece of art," she says.

When Barnhart got to New City Studio for the "In Sight II" opening Friday night, she discovered there was nothing at the gallery indicating her work had been removed. Earlier in the week, she'd asked Hutchison to post a sign saying the work had been censored. It was supposed to go next to the text panel for her piece, Barnhart says.

click to enlarge Label where Barnhart's work, which was rejected by New City Studio, would have been placed. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Label where Barnhart's work, which was rejected by New City Studio, would have been placed.
Lynn Trimble
But the label wasn't there when Phoenix New Times arrived shortly after 7 p.m. that night. Instead, viewers saw Ashley Naftule's Narcissus in Love, which was written as part of his partnership with Barnhart for the project. (Naftule is a New Times contributor.)

During the reception, Hutchison put up a small piece of paper with a brief handwritten statement indicating that the work had been censored. That only went up after Barnhart arrived to discover no signage posted about the censorship.

Barnhart isn't the only one who calls what happened censorship.

During Friday's opening reception, Phoenix poet laureate Rosemarie Dombrowski and three additional writers turned out to protest the fact the Barnhart's work was excluded from the show. Two of those writers have works in the show. Kat Hofland was partnered with artist Cydnei Mallory for the "In Sight II" project, and Sophia McGovern worked with artist Dani Godreau.

The protesters held signs decrying censorship, and stood near the east entrance to the gallery, located on Central Avenue. When they talked with Phoenix New Times that night, they also expressed concerns about New City Church's stance on LGBTQ issues.

click to enlarge Poet Laureate Rosemarie Dombrowski protests during the opening for "In Sight II" at New City Studio. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Poet Laureate Rosemarie Dombrowski protests during the opening for "In Sight II" at New City Studio.
Lynn Trimble
Some creatives decided to boycott the opening. "We are aware of several participants who chose not to attend the opening due to the decision regarding Malena's art and other factors," Jake Friedman told Phoenix New Times by e-mail on Sunday, January 7. He's the founder and editor-in-chief of Four Chambers Press.

Friedman led a panel discussion of the exhibit on Saturday, January 6, which included six "In Sight II" writers and artists. About 10 people attended, including several affiliated with the project.

For the first half, the panel discussed the collaborative process. The rest focused on the issue of Barnhart's work being removed, including the circumstances that led up to the decision. Friedman confirmed during the panel that two planned "In Sight II" readings have been cancelled. He also noted that the exhibition would still be on view during Third Friday, January 19.

Since then, Barnhart, Buck-Hutchison, and Rascona have agreed on posting a more prominent sign, which will be shown in lieu of the excluded artwork.

That sign will read "New City chose to remove this work from the exhibition."

For Barnhart, the sign itself is a form of censorship. Here's what she wrote in a Monday, January 8, email to "In Sight II" organizers: "Censoring the censorship sign doesn't seem like the best way for Nick to communicate his point."

Barnhart didn't attend the Saturday panel, but she did post about the exhibit on Facebook shortly after 1 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. Her post included a photo of the label for her piece, and this sentence: "My artwork was censored from the In Sight II show at New City Studio."

Several artists responded to Barnhart's post.

"I always wondered about NCS being attached to a church," Megan Koth wrote in her reply. Buzzy Sullivan left it at "WTF?" And Ann Morton wrote this: "Crazy. 'New' City Studio sounds pretty antiquated to me!"

Others shared their views with New Times in response to a Monday, January 8, email inviting them to weigh in. "I see it mainly as a communication problem," Emily Matyas wrote, in part.

Samantha Lyn Aasen offered a suggestion for fellow artists: "I think going forward we as a community shouldn't show at locations that censor art." And Denise Yaghmourian sent a reply that included the following: "I feel censorship of art is complete bullshit and negates the essence of any honest and sincere making of art."

This isn't the first time the censorship issue has touched the downtown arts scene.

Controversy ensued just last month after the Third Friday, December 15, opening for an exhibition of photographs by Bob Carey. The exhibition was presented by Phoenix Institute of Contemporary Art in a shipping container gallery in Roosevelt Row. One of three images in the show portrayed Carey in blackface.

That art show was scheduled to continue through First Friday, January 5. But curator Ted Decker opted to take the work down instead, and didn't present exhibits in any of the shipping container galleries that night.

In August 2013, Herberger Theater Center canceled an art show called "Prime Example" because it didn't want to show one of the works selected by guest curator Robrt L. Pela, a longtime New Times contributor. The work was Mike Ford's photograph The Sodomite, which depicted a man with the word "sodomite" written across his forehead.

In October 2012, Randy Slack decided not to accept a painting Suzanne Falk submitted for that year's "Chaos Theory," an invitational exhibition held at Legend City Studios. The piece, titled in heaven everything is fine, depicted a group of men engaged in a group masturbation.

Clearly, Barnhart is trying to place New City Studio's decision in context. "I know the blackface scandal happened recently and people are hesitant," Barnhart says. But she also sees the incredible irony of having a man decide to reject her art. "It seems like a white man policing women's bodies, which makes me sad."