March 27th, 2014 | by RICHARD SPEER Arts & Books | Posted In: Visual Arts

Why Shit Balloons Shouldn't Float Around a Shopping Mall

Place PDX Gallery gets booted from Pioneer Place Mall, thanks to "shit balloons" and suicide celebrations

pioneer-place-mall-atriumM.O. Stevens / Wikicommons
Gallery-goers are hard to shock these days, but mall-goers may be a different story. As WW reported Wednesday, transgressive artwork appears to have gotten Place PDX Gallery kicked out of its space at Pioneer Place Mall. The gallery is on the mall’s third floor, as are two adjoining art spaces, Mark Woolley Gallery and The Peoples Art of Portland Gallery.

According to Place gallery director Gabe Flores, edgy programming raised the ire of the mall’s management company, General Growth Properties, leading the company to terminate Place’s lease as of March 31.

Although mall spokesperson Sandra Rollinson has not responded to WW’s questions, Flores is convinced the lease was terminated because of beyond-the-pale exhibitions he’s mounted at the gallery. Among these were John Dougherty’s Shit Balloons, which used dog poop as an art medium, and Michael Reinsch’s performance piece, A High Improbability of Death: A Celebration of Suicide, in which the artist read a suicide note aloud and simulated the act of hanging himself. On Place’s website, Flores has reproduced what he says is correspondence between himself and the mall’s general manager, Bob Buchanan. Flores believes Buchanan was motivated by concerns that the gallery’s content could disturb shoppers and other merchants.

Well, duh.

Even in a progressive town like Portland, the people who shop at Forever 21 or Louis Vuitton are not necessarily the same people who seek out confrontational art about scatology and suicide. It’s easy for contemporary-art scenesters to forget that not everybody is inured to shock value. Not everyone’s memory stretches back to the avant-garde movements of the early 20th Century; to Yves Klein using naked women as “living paintbrushes;” to the Fluxus happenings of the 1960s and 70s; or to photographers like Sally Mann, Jock Sturges, Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin, all of whom used nude models to varying degrees of transgressiveness. 

And few people outside the cognoscenti have their fingers on the pulse of more recent shows that have pushed proverbial envelopes, such as Paul McCarthy’s WS last summer in New York City, which included, among other things, a stylized rape of a character based on Snow White. Most people don’t go to the mall to confront taboos and psychosexual bogeymen—they just need a new hoodie.

The other galleries on the mall’s third floor seem to get this implicitly. People’s Art co-directors Chris Haberman and Jason Brown issued a joint statement Tuesday saying: “We are above an Apple store and a Baby Gap... We have made it our mission to make art more accessible without alienating anyone. Though we do exhibit challenging themes and topics, it is not necessarily our focus or main agenda... We love all types of art, but we are working within the public realm, trying to keep it hip and tasteful at the same time.

A complicating but very relevant factor to keep in mind is that the galleries at Pioneer Place have their rents subsidized by General Growth Properties. Gabe Flores says he was responsible only for paying utilities at Place PDX. So crying foul of artistic censorship doesn’t quite ring as true as it would if a gallery owner is paying market price for exhibition space.

If you’re getting free rent, it might behoove you to pay attention to your landlord’s sensitivities. These are big issues with long histories: self-expression versus decorum, artistic merit versus popular taste, creative freedom versus Big Brother. 

Certainly it’s a slippery slope when corporations get involved in deciding what sorts of art the public can and cannot handle. That’s why artists who tackle transgressive themes generally have the sense not to show their artwork at malls.
 
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