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No Piss Christ here

Art has always had the potential to shock. Some artists shock inadvertently, while others shock by design. Pretty much the whole point of Dada -- one of the most extreme (and influential) movements in art history -- was to piss people off, to deliver a jolt to a world that, in the artists' perceptions, had gone insane during and immediately after World War I.

More recently, popular culture was abuzz with well-publicized "scandals" over Robert Mapplethorpe's graphic homoerotic photography, for instance, and Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a photo of a crucifix displayed in a container of urine. More recently, the "Sensation" show that started in London and ended up in Brooklyn offended and outraged many, including an especially testy pre-9/11 Rudy Giuliani. Its collection of provocative works included the infamous The Holy Virgin Mary, a painting of a black Madonna that incorporated elephant dung and clippings from porno magazines into its composition.

New York City's Jewish Museum is weathering a storm of criticism over its current Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, an exhibition that some interpret as trivializing the Holocaust. How dare an artist re-create a concentration-camp scene using Lego pieces or juxtapose someone holding a diet-soda can with emaciated prisoners?

Closer to home, South Florida had a little brouhaha of its own in January over the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood's retrospective of works by self-proclaimed lowbrow artist Todd Schorr. The fuss was over a shamelessly garish painting (reproduced on the cover of this newspaper) in which Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny go at each other with an axe and a dagger, respectively.

Now, the Broward Art Guild, which came to the rescue of the Hortt Competition after Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art abandoned it, gets into the act (or tries to) with a small show called "Controversy." The exhibition hardly lives up to its name: Much of the work on display is simply innocuous, and some of it is downright dull, although a few artists have taken the idea of potentially offending people quite seriously.

So-called shock art often achieves its effect by using extreme imagery involving either religion or sexuality (in some cases both). Sometimes, politics also comes into play. The "Controversy" show includes all three.

If you start the exhibition by heading to the right as you enter the gallery, the first work you'll encounter is a digital collage, Marianne Buttner's Longing for Faith. But rather than stir things up, the piece comes across as a serious, sincere inquiry into a loss of faith. The image is dominated by a large weeping Madonna surrounded by free-floating items: roses, crosses, a rosary, an open Bible, a cactus, a pierced and bleeding dove.

There's nothing especially controversial about the imagery and certainly nothing offensive about the words superimposed over it: "I long for the easy faith of my youth/When I pinned on medals/And felt protected/Where is my ardent heart?/Is this my desert period?/Will I emerge with faith renewed?/Or... have I truly fallen from grace?" This is meant to be controversial?

The inclusion here of Lorrie Williamson's oil Jesus, which snagged third place in the show, is similarly bewildering. It's just an extremely traditional portrait of Jesus with the cross on his shoulders, painted in luscious dark colors, the sort of conventional art that would fit right in at even the most conservative museum.

The show's judge, Rob Nathans, an adjunct professor of painting and drawing at Broward Community College, seems partial to art that tackles religious themes. His choice for best in show is Nature Is Corrupt? This mixed-media piece by Chris Yoculan consists of copies of a Bible, a Torah, and a Qur'an hanging side by side on a wall. Each has had several nails driven into it, most painted with such sin-associated words as sloth, rage, gluttony, lust, and hate. (Two odd touches: self-respect is on one of the Bible's nails, and one reading pork is on a Qur'an nail.)

Jeff Gaynor seems to think that inserting the word fuck in big letters into a painting is enough to generate shock; he does it in both of his oils included here. But the joke backfires -- what's of real interest in his big picture Rocky is his technique. It's a close-up portrait of a faintly goofy-looking guy wearing a baseball cap and glasses, with one lens reflecting a photographer. Big bold words appear here and there: "Rocky, My Hero" and "Fuck Pink" (even though the man's cap is pink).

But Gaynor has created the piece by accumulating daubs of pigment applied so thickly that the surface of the painting is blanketed with little meringue-like peaks. It's like impasto on steroids, and the blindingly bright colors add an almost hallucinatory intensity that works whether you're looking at the picture from a distance or inspecting it from a few inches away.

Some of the best work in the show, ironically, has no discernible agenda. E. Christine Fellner Stiles's large acrylic On the Edge tantalizes with a sickly white figure of a nude, muscular male, seen from behind, breaking through a barrier of some sort. It's a simple composition with an air of mystery and a particularly fine feel for the textures and contours of human flesh. Jim Watson contributes a mixed-media piece called Red Square that really looks like nothing more than an elegantly simple floral watercolor. And another acrylic, Paula Davidson's Dinnertime, is of note not for the large head on a plate in the middle of a dinner table but for the echoes that resonate between the two elongated, wispy figures on either side of the table and the thin vases of flowers that bracket the plate.

There are a few samples of hit-you-over-the-head art. Mimi Shapiro's Politic Darts is a dartboard collaged with words and images of conservative political figures, including George W. Bush as the bull's-eye and a dart through the word dissent. A mixed-media installation by Anthony Lamorte called The Manger of Greed features a sort of deranged miniature Nativity scene that looks promising at first glance but doesn't really add up to much.

Feminism is politicized in a quartet of works, to varying degrees of success. A decidedly unsubtle, untitled oil by Joann Russell shows a trio of men's urinals with spread-legged women built into them and a man relieving himself into one. A lackluster oil, Victor del Grosso's Today's Feminist, seems to equate feminism with terrorism by portraying a defiant-looking woman with a shawl on her head, clutching a bundle of sticks of dynamite with the fuse ignited.

Two works, however, deliver on a number of levels (and received two of four special Judge's Recognition awards). Nancy Edelstein's ETC. is a small, mixed-media work, a plexiglass box containing stones stained red, along with a news clipping about an unfaithful Nigerian woman whose stoning was postponed by an Islamic court until her child was weaned.

But the piece that shocks, repulses, and provokes most effectively is The Sower & the Reaper, a masterly, highly detailed pencil-and-ink drawing by Pat Roberts that provides a gynecologist's-eye view of a woman's genitalia. A small scythe seems poised to perform a clitorectomy, while a needle and some thread suggest that the woman is also on the verge of being sewn shut. A few drops of blood have been added in red ink. To the left is a ghostly image of a Muslim woman in the head-to-toe burqa with which we've become all too familiar.

Political art of this sort is particularly tricky, but I think Roberts and, to a lesser extent, Edelstein have succeeded here. This is shock art that achieves its goals, even at the expense of verging on exploitation. It's also art that, unlike most of the work surrounding it, comes closest to evoking the exhibition's stated theme.

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Michael Mills

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