THE FIRST THURSDAY art walk turned ugly in February, as exhibiting photographer Patricia Ridenour flew into a rage, hurling insults and ultimately taking her photographs down from the walls of the Benham Gallery to the bewilderment of innocent gallery-walkers. "I arrived at my own reception," Ridenour recounted, "to find my work removed from the front gallery and relegated to the back room."
According to Benham Gallery director Marita Holdaway, Ridenour "was raving, yelling that I was spineless."
The work in question (Ridenour's sixth show in 12 years at Benham, and decidedly not the first to depict nudity) is a series of black-and-white photographs that seeks to break down the thin barriers dividing art, advertising, and pornography. By appropriating the recognizable formats of famous paintings such as Edouard Manet's Olympia (incidentally, a painting that caused a scandal in the Parisian Salon in 1863, but for its technique rather than its subject—no matter that it depicts a naked, teenage prostitute) and inserting male models as subjects, Ridenour pointedly employs the shock value of male nudity to problematize our "conditioned acceptance of the objectification of the female body."
"I asked myself who Olympia would need to be today to cause a stir," Ridenour jokes, "and I guess it is a man with a big one." She feels that the size of some of her models' penises made people especially uncomfortable. "Some of them are really well endowed," she notes, "and I think that men, especially, are threatened by that."
Holdaway admits she told the artist "the big dicks offended visitors."
Ridenour sees blatant censorship behind the gallery's decision. "Why are big dicks taboo when big boobs are acceptable?" she wonders. "Finally men might get a taste of the inadequacy women feel every time they open a magazine."
To her credit, Holdaway is known as a risk taker. She's shown more daring work than this (that of another gallery artist, Paul Dahlquist, often depicts men with erect penises.) But during the first two weeks of Ridenour's show (the reception took place midway through the run), she had observed visitors as they stepped in off the street and encountered the photos. "People got to the third one," she laments, "and then left." She considered the gallery's location—at 1216 First, it's across from the Lusty Lady and a few doors up from a couple of pawn shops—and realized people might think they'd stumbled into an unsavory establishment, not a gallery at all. "I moved the stuff to the back so that the two other artists would have a chance to be seen. Yes, it was a commercial decision. This is a business. But there was no editing and no censorship."
Of her rash public display, Ridenour says defiantly, "I had to do it." She did it on principle "for the arts community, for Seattle, for women," she insists.
"The whole point of my show was to draw attention to just this kind of control on the images that we see and that we readily accept." In her estimation, the show became utterly pointless—an absurdly ironic failure—if it, too, was subjugated to the censorship that it sought to reveal. "It's a societal problem," Ridenour said almost apologetically. "I'm still glad I took the show down, but [Holdaway] is as caught up in the economics of sexuality as all of us are. In a white patriarchy where economics drives everything, these images are too threatening. Hopefully we'll look back on this like we do on Manet's Olympia scandal and think it's silly."
Ridenour hopes to mount the show again in March at a Belltown boutique called Darbury Stenderu (1212 First). A date hasn't yet been set for the reception, but Ridenour plans to entertain guests with readings of literary works that were once censored.