Censorship Exhibit at the Brecht Forum, by Leah Hansen

Thursday, November 8 saw the opening of “Censorship: An Exhibition Benefiting Artists in Distress” at the Brecht Forum . The reception featured plenty of food and drinks, live performances, and a raucous crowd the filled every inch of the relatively small gallery space. The featured artists hail from countries around the world and utilize an array of mediums, including drawing, painting, photography, video, and performance. The only thing missing was context.

No artist’s statement or biography appeared; no overall explanation of the show’s goal was on view. The press release for the exhibition, which can be found at freedimensional.org, explains that a few of the artists have faced political repercussions as a result of their controversial work, but nowhere at the actual show can one read which artists were censored and which are simply responding to the idea of censorship.

This creates a modicum of confusion. Though quite striking, Melissa Murray’s “Bag,” a four-foot graphite drawing of a nude woman in profile, sitting on the ground wearing a plastic grocery bag like a hat, doesn’t necessarily address censorship. Yes, nudity is frequently under attack by censors, but in this case, the woman’s arms and legs obscure any “offensive” parts. Moving on, one arrives at Sarah Valeri’s stunning painting, “Bright”. The 30-inch canvas features a lithe, androgynous child curled in a fetal position on a swamp bank. In the foreground, a dog with a frog riding on its back swims by; lily pads float around them. The painting’s sea of blue, green, lavender, and cream swirl gently together, and, coupled with the child’s morose expression, evokes serenity and sadness. But, again, one wonders how it relates to the show’s theme.

The pieces with clear ties to censorship cover emotions ranging from rage to hope to humor. Particularly humorous are the pieces by photographer “BKLYN Paul,” who attended the opening naked. In “Spring Street,” the artist appears naked and smirking in front of graffiti-covered wall that creates a stark contrast to his unclothed body. On the left, an amateur photographer is caught snapping Paul’s photo with a little digital camera and a woman on the right turns toward us with a big grin. Paul’s “Subway Series” consists of three photos of a friend riding the subway naked. Only one other rider watches with a scowl, while everyone else is clearly laughing. The laughter captured in these photos emphasizes the ridiculousness of the attempts by the FCC and conservatives to fine and jail people for even accidental flashes nudity. Meanwhile, no one in these photos appears harmed or scarred by seeing a naked man on the streets of New York.

Collages by Issa Nyaphaga and Bara Diokhane evoke potent anger at the lack of artistic freedom in their homelands, Cameroon and Senegal. Mel Smothers’ two Mao portraits (of the Andy Warhol variety), painted over with ethereal birds in flight, impart a sense of hope for the future.

While the exhibition is successful as a showcase of eclectic art, it fails to maintain a cohesive message about censorship. Background information on the art and artists is especially important in this context, as artists face the FCC crackdown on “obscene” television and radio programming, and the current administration’s attempts to repeal basic rights in the name of “combating terrorism.” Without an explanation tying this work together, it’s just a mish-mash of art—impressive art, but a mish-mash nonetheless.

“Censorship: An Exhibition Benefiting Artists in Distress” will be on display at the Brecht Forum, located at 451 West Street between Bank and Bethune Streets, through December 6. There will also be a closing celebration held on Friday, November 30 from 7 to 10 p.m., featuring live music and dance. For more information, visit brechtforum.org or call 212-242-4201.