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The crowd was buzzing, the pianist was tinkling his keyboard and everyone filled their black paper plates with black beans and rice, blackened chicken and blackberry tarts.
The color reflected the theme of the June 15 opening of the latest public art exhibit at City Hall, The Black Velvet Show, which runs through Sept. 17. But it might as well have reflected the mood that artist Terry Hummel was in.
One of the works he created for the show failed to make it into the exhibit. It was pulled for what a city official saw as objectionable content.
The painting, titled "Purple Haze," was a mixed-media portrait of Jimi Hendrix. Hummel painted the '60s rock icon looking off the painting, toward the neck of an electric guitar, which Hummel had attached to one side of the frame.
That much of the work was safe. Along the top and other side of the frame, however, Hummel attached syringes; from the bottom, he hung 13 unlucky spoons, used by junkies to cook heroin. "It isn't high art," says Hummel, who describes his portrait of Hendrix, who died of a drug overdose, as an anti-drug message. "But it shouldn't have been pulled from the show."
But it was, and so was a painting by Julia West that exposed too much of a woman's breast, says Frank Holt, the city's public-art coordinator. His decision to remove the two works, he says, was based on his view of what is appropriate to a public space where art is the secondary concern. "Many people who come to City Hall don't come to see art," he says. "We want them to have a positive experience with our exhibit, not a negative one."
Hummel says he doesn't fault Holt; another of his works, depicting Queen Elizabeth, is featured prominently in the show. Rather, Hummel is concerned that the removal fits a larger pattern locally of inhospitable treatment to artists.
Dan Erminger says the attitude doesn't stop at City Hall. His painting of Marilyn Monroe was removed from an exhibit at the Orlando Museum of Art. It showed a reclining Monroe in a red dress, her right hand pulling at her hair; Erminger says museum officials singled out his painting because Monroe's legs were spread apart and her face held a seductive pose.
"Orlando has people in control who have a problem with something that is a little bit sensual," he says. "If it turns them on, they say, 'Oh, I can't show that.'"
Lance Norris is a Chicago native who opened an age-18-and-up tattoo shop on Orange Avenue nine months ago. Toward the back of his shop, Norris hung five airbrushed paintings of what he describes as biomechanical drawings. One showed a woman's breast; another showed the face of a woman with her head tilted back, her mouth accepting a pipe as if she were deep-throating it. Police told him to take them down or he'd be fined $100 a day. They didn't cite any ordinance Norris was violating, he says, but he took them down anyway.
"This town needs an enema bad," he says. "This town has gotten so tight."
Victor Perez is aware of what happened to Norris and Hummel -- almost inevitable, given what he describes as Orlando's "Mayberry mentality." But the maverick Perez, whose V-Groove Productions has for five years hosted annual shows by local artists themed around nudity, says there's another side.
For one thing, what some portray as censorship, Perez calls curating -- the process by which exhibitors cull works that might not fit their show. Perez kept several pieces out of his most recent "Nude Nite" show because he considered them too erotic. He argues that Hummel should have known "Purple Haze" was incompatible with the Hood administration because governments traditionally are conservative.
"This is City Hall," he says. "It's kind of what you expect."
But he and his wife, Tiphanie, see signs the moral climate might be loosening. Perez is hosting an Orlando Museum of Art show in September, titled "Body Electric," that he says will be identical to his "Nude Nites."
"I never thought [the museum] would do a 'Nude Nite,'" says Tiphanie Perez.
Hummel, meanwhile, has formed Orlando Visual Artists League, which he hopes will be a stronger voice for those seeking public grants and an audience for their work -- and less interference from potential censors. "When you have a group," he says, "you have some political say-so."