Desire in Syracuse: the ‘Come On’ Controversy

Yvonne Olivas


Desire in Syracuse

It was the flyer for "Come On: Desire Under the Female Gaze" that initially caught my attention with its cropped image of I’ll Be Your Mirror by Juliet Jacobson and matching seductive title in its glam-metal, fleshy-pink font. In Jacobson’s drawing, one half of the graphite image mirrors the other—making it appear that a nude boy with eyes closed reclines and melds into the body of his perfect twin. A giant heart-shape hangs like a moon above the languid pair while skulls and peacock feathers make do as a bed beneath. The name of the exhibition is printed below the image and alludes to Jo-Anne Balcaen’s Aw, C’mon while the ’80s-rock font suggests Rachel Rampleman’s Poison: My Sister Fucked Bret video. My interest piqued, I tracked down the show’s curator, Astria Suparak, and the show’s three artists for interviews.

The exhibition opened in late August in Syracuse, New York at the Warehouse Gallery. Affiliated with Syracuse University as one of a consortium of school galleries (Coalition of Museums and Art Centers—CMAC), the space maintains relative independence with its off-campus, downtown location. This location allowed The Warehouse to better fulfill its purported aim to act as a bridge between the university and the population of Syracuse while presenting international contemporary engaged art, but more specifically by stimulating dialog about art’s role in society and expanding notions of art with exposure to current art practice.

Of course, "Come On" did just that with three young women artists taking on desire and sexuality and brought together by a curator who openly describes herself as a "young, queer woman of color." And whether at first by choice and later by dint of circumstance, the ongoing theme of the exhibition was the personal laid bare and exposed. Alternately sexy and uncomfortable the show was always HOT. And not just because of the artwork. Browsing online I found that the exhibition had already been extensively covered by the press; curiously, the curator was fired just after the show opened. It was not too long until speculations about censorship over the content of the exhibition were circulating online. Hot indeed! And presumably no accident either.

An eight-person hiring committee at the university had actively pursued Ms. Suparak for the position of inaugural director of their new contemporary art gallery which she would eventually name The Warehouse. They believed that she possessed the ability to make it a vital space for art. This committee was wowed by her active connection to the contemporary art world. As an independent curator, she had already organized shows for P.S. 1, Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Participant Inc., Yale University, Eyebeam, New York Underground Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, apexart, etc. According to Suparak, the committee unanimously voted to hire her—and this after she had presented them with many, many fully formed exhibition proposals with titles and lists of artists. Suparak said, "all the exhibitions I organize[d] for the gallery were drawn from that set of ideas." In other words, it appears that the administration knew exactly what they were getting when they hired Suparak—a very active and independent curator. Ostensibly that is what they wanted. Successful, that is precisely what they got; just not as they must have anticipated. It seems that Suparak’s vision mightily exceeded that of her superiors’ stunted imaginations, and yet not that of The Warehouse’s larger audience—"Come On" alone received 4,000 visitors—impressive, especially in a small city like Syracuse.

For anyone familiar with contemporary art, or even the history of art, the frank sexual content of some of the work in "Come On" would not prove surprising or shocking. Context is another matter as it often compels the judgement of the measure of transgression. Single works of art are routinely removed from exhibitions for their particular content. During our interview, both Rachel Rampleman and Juliet Jacobson mentioned the very recent censoring of a Nan Goldin photograph in Gateshead, England at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. The snapshot titled Klare and Edda Belly-Dancing shows two young girls playing—one dances above the other who is nude on the floor with legs open. It is part of a 149-piece photo series called Thanksgiving and owned by Elton John. It was seized by authorities who deemed it pornographic. Those who would have this one photograph removed probably imagine that it does not detract from the work of art (the photo series). Disagreeing with this limited conception of art, Elton John had the remainder of Thanksgiving removed from view in support of the integrity of Nan Goldin’s work.

This question of content and context is particularly illuminating in light of curator Astria Suparak’s dismissal mid-showing of the "Come On" exhibition. In a series of emails, published online at "syracuse loses again," Jeffrey Hoone, the executive director of CMAC who personally dismissed Suparak, asks her to defend the work in the "Come On" exhibition, which he continually characterized as "weak and seriously flawed." Hoone stated that they would "have to do quite a bit of work to provide a context and rationalization for exhibiting these pieces." He singled out Juliet Jacobson’s drawings, the content of which he claimed would be "clearly offensive to a good number of people" and would "be a challenge for sophisticated art lovers…and certainly seen as controversial by many."

Juliet Jacobson is a Brooklyn-based artist. She had four works in the show—huge graphite drawings (some as large as 48 by 114 inches) of nude males taken from the pages of ’70s and ’80s "European, men’s-interest magazines." Men pose languorously in these drawings. They penetrate each other as in You Said You Hated Your Body, That It’s Just a Piece of Meat, But I Think You’re Wrong. I Think You’re Beautiful; they kiss in No Weak Heart Shall Prosper; or they hold their erect penises as in Narcissus or I’ll Be Your Mirror; and sometimes when they are coupled, one boy is white and one boy is black. All of the images are symmetrically composed where the figures are mirrored or bifurcate from the center. Included are images of snakes, skulls, feathers, flowers and the moon. For Jacobson, the flowers and skulls figure symbolically as a "wish to dismantle limits in love and sex and the demarcation of death as a singular horizon for being." The drawings distort and fracture the body in space and collapse their center. This collapse is presumably the effect of love—something that Jacobson speaks of in reference to her work—human meaning created by the mutuality of self and other rather than the hierarchical arrangement of self and other.

Rachel Rampleman, who also lives in Brooklyn and whose work includes video, photography and sculpture, provided a contrast to Jacobson’s work. Poison: My Sister Fucked Bret (2006) is a 30-minute video account of Rampleman’s little sister Sarah’s night with ’80s glam-rock band Poison’s lead singer Bret Michaels. It is the memory of being a suburban, Ohio teen in the throes of total rock-idol worship to the excitement and disappointment of actually getting to meet him. Flashback images of a younger Sarah are interspersed with Poison video clips, Bret posters and an older Sarah, who now has a different body, narrating her encounter with her teenage-dream idol. She speaks from the backdrop of her home—in her bedroom on her bed, in her bathroom seated in front of a large mirror, in front of a television against which her body is only a black silhouette—sometimes a toddler walks in and out of the frame, or can be heard repeating "la la la la la la." From the clip that’s on youtube, you get the sense that her experience with Bret was a mixture of awe and deflated expectation, but matter-of-factly so and not without a dose of humor. At the end of the encounter Bret asks Sarah if he could do anything different for her, in her mind she says, "get an enlargement…take some Viagra."

Neither Rampleman nor her sister expected many people to see this trailer. But they did. On youtube her story was dismissed by comments, the "basic gist," of which, Rampleman said, "was, ‘Does Bret bang the fat fans? We think not.’ A lot of people were like, ‘There’s no way.’" Even though these comments were not part of the "Come On" exhibition, they are telling. They acutely register that when it comes to women, bodies are judged first, words second; comments went so far as to suggest that if they found her undesirable, then her story was not even plausible.

Montreal-based artist Jo-Anne-Balcaen felt that her work Blow had much in common with Rampleman’s Poison. It was a sculpture made of long skinny black balloons with all their tied openings bound together on a wall. These formed a heart of black tubes, which incidentally, resembled condoms with their nippled, receptacle ends pointing out. Since the work was comprised of blown up balloons, it wilted and deflated over the course of the show—mirroring the fate of expectation or memory of celebration turned to disappointment or a return to the mundane. Blow might also intimate that physical female sexual desire does not want to be let down.

Balcaen’s other four works in the show were text-based. They included the taunting and reassuring phrase Aw, C’mon written in a heavy-metal font cut from a silvery Plexiglas that made the words reflect like a mirror. Dictionary Definitions: Prince of Darkness, Yearning Year Round, Blurt Blush juxtaposed words and their definitions, alluding to the flux of connotation and meaning inherent in words. Deceptive in their straight forwardness, these works were reminders that words are just like balloons, or other mundane objects, in that they arouse expectation and suggest associations. Hinted at is a cultural inheritance that informs the expectation that words are gendered—as if one word could obviously be feminine, while another, obviously masculine.

Returning to the idea of content and context, it may be tempting to accuse Jeffrey Hoone of censorship in light of his email correspondence with Astria Suparak, the director and curator of the Warehouse Gallery, whom he dismissed. The problem with this accusation is that it narrows and occludes the perception of a constellation of relevant issues at play. In these emails, Hoone demands an account of the work in the show to which Suparak supplies a lengthy defense citing its timeliness with regard to the recent "WACK: Art and the Feminist Revolution" at LA MOCA and "Global Feminisms" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art; and then further contextualizes the work in regard to third-wave feminism, but especially foregrounds the subject of female sexuality and desire juxtaposed and complicated with the imagery of sexualized, homosexual males. She closes by confirming the exhibition’s relevance to a list of several classes at the university.

Hoone lights upon Suparak’s mentioning of recent art exhibitions that deal with feminism and contends that she could have borrowed some of these artists like "Catherine Opie, Kara Walker, Sam Taylor-Wood and others" to "introduce the Central New York audience to important artists dealing with issues of gender, sexuality and representation." This statement admits much, particularly that he misunderstand Jacobson’s or Rampleman’s or Balcaen’s work; or what feminism might mean to a generation of artists with roots and familiarity with DIY, Riot Grrrl, third-wave feminism and queer theory; and how it is that this versatility and fluency with theoretical positions and mediums might inform their practice. He betrays fixed thinking in recommending certain artists, subtly suggesting that feminism—or worse, women artists as a general category—comes prepackaged with ready discourse attached. In doing so he does a great disservice to these established artists by implying that there is a text-book approach to dealing with women and art.

Standing in sharp contrast to this text-book approach was Suparak whose exhibitions resisted narrow thinking and neat categorization—"Come On" was exemplary in this regard. For Hoone though, it must have had the character of something he could not understand nor contain—it was too messy, too sexy, too complicated—overall, too hot. But it was the same HOT thing that Syracuse embraced; and while probably challenging, a threat it was not. The fact is that Suparak did curate contextually strong exhibitions. This is why she had a following. This is why the Warehouse was widely hailed as a success. And this is why no one but Hoone balked at "Come On: Desire Under the Female Gaze." Suparak was exceedingly capable of creating a context for challenging and new work. So Hoone could not really censor her, subtracting one work from her well-conceived exhibition would not sufficiently stop her as a phenomenon. There was only one possible solution to removing Suparak as a threat. He unilaterally decided to terminate her position.

Promptly after he did so, in a swift chronology of events, he cancelled the next show Suparak had scheduled, "Keep it Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism with the Yes Men," furthering an attempt to stamp out her sphere of influence. There was an outcry from the faculty who had given funds for the exhibition when Hoone tried to reschedule it without its curator. In support of Suparak and protest at her dismissal, the Yes Men declined to show if they could not work with her. Hundreds of people, even beyond the city limits of Syracuse, have protested her firing and written letters and lobbied for her reinstatement. A protest was even staged at the front doors of the gallery itself. These include statements of support from Lauren Cornell, executive director of Rhizome; artist Carolee Schneemann; artist Stephen Vitiello; the Bard College Faculty of the Department of Film and Electronic Arts; and the Chairs of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University. She was even appointed by a vote of 7-0 by the Syracuse Common Council to the city’s new Public Arts Commission in recognition of the fact that her influence did indeed extend beyond that of the university. Still, a unilateral decision made by one man is somehow being allowed to stand, depriving a university and a city of something they want and no doubt leaving in its wake a new culture of fear and distrust.

Yvonne C. Olivas
Thank you Sady for all your help.

cover image is from Jo-Anne Balcaen’s, Blow, 2001, balloons, approximately 8 by 11 by 3 feet and (right) Aw, C’mon, 2005, Plexiglas, 14 by 40 by 3/4 inches.

Please check out:

Jo-Anne Balcaen:
Juliet Jacobson:
Rachel Rampleman:

And for more information about Astria Suparak and recent events: