One thing conservative politicians tend not to like is explicit artwork. One thing they really do not like is explicit artwork that evokes sacred or religious symbols. You know, like Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" or Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary."
The latest artist to ruffle feathers with her cocktail of the sacred and profane is artist Rosalie Maheux. The Toronto-based artist is feeling the heat over her "Sacred Circles" series, a collection of kaleidoscopic mandalas that, upon closer examination, are made from chopped up pornographic images.
The hybrid images invite the viewer to meditate on the opposing images of spiritual wholeness and sexual objectification. "My use of pornographic imagery in the creation of these detailed patterns is meant to clash with the original meaning of the sacred circle, and create an experience between attraction and repulsion," the artist explained to The Huffington Post.
However, when the works were displayed in the lobby of a Toronto government office building as part of a John B. Aird Gallery exhibition, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party was more repulsed than attracted.
Progressive Conservative critic Laurie Scott, in particular, was not pleased with Maheux's appropriation of explicit imagery, even if said imagery was used as a critique. "Regardless of the aims or intent of the artist, Ontarians expect their government to lead by example in combating the sexual objectification of women," Scott said in a statement. "The fact that a publicly housed gallery has been allowed to not only display but to sell images of this nature is very worrisome."
Maheux explained she was "distressed" by Scott's criticism, as well as the way Scott's perspective quickly circulated through Canadian media without providing Maheux's perspective. "What was most shocking about Scott's reaction," she noted, "was her claim that she does not care about the artist’s intentions in this case. Now, I do not believe that an artist should exist beyond criticism, but what a thing to say about a conceptual artwork that is obviously doing something more with its source imagery!"
Maheux's work constitutes a social critique of mainstream culture's incessant sexualization of women. In the artist's words: "If I am unnerved or upset or intrigued by the ways in which women are represented in certain fields of culture, is it not my right as a woman artist to appropriate this imagery, reconfigure it on my own terms, and offer it back as something transformed?"
This is far from the first time a conservative politician has chosen to ignore the conceptual implications of a triggering artwork due to its graphic or irreverent content. Of course, for Maheux, the explicit nature of her imagery is central to its message, "as its elements draw our attention to our stake in the politics of looking, voyeurism, sexual degradation, sexism, sexuality and so on."
"If the irony of my work is the way in which it conceals controversial and thought-provoking imagery within the divine or meditative form of the sacred circle, then the irony of the Conservative reaction to the piece is that this imagery has sent them into a puritanical frenzy, unable and unwilling to think about the work. I fear that some people stopped thinking as soon as they became aware of imagery that challenged their norms and standards. Such a restrictive attitude is a bit scary, especially when harmful images of women circulate throughout society."
Despite the backlash, John B. Aird Gallery is sticking by Maheux's work. And since the government building is technically a public space operated by an independent board of directors, it looks like the nudie mandalas are here to stay.
Another day, another artist pissing off conservative politicians. It's all part of the job!
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