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Irvine Fine Arts Center Tackles Topic of Censorship

Art can be a touchy subject. This is especially true when creative expression is used to reflect upon the darker realities of life. When juxtaposed with an art gallery as a family-friendly zone, such reflections can be censored. Recently, the Irvine Fine Arts Center experienced a controversy over an exhibit featuring explicit subject matter. The result of this controversy involves the restructuring of the process by which artists and exhibits will be screened by the city.

Joseph Gerges is a professor at Irvine Valley College. He has been working as an artist for 20 years and currently teaches drawing and printmaking; his work has been internationally exhibited. When Gerges started working at Irvine Valley in 2012, he was also teaching at Chapman University, California State University at Fullerton, Laguna College of Art and Design and Art Center College of Design. As a condition of his new full-time position as an art professor, Gerges was required to study printmaking, and he recalls, “The Irvine Fine Arts Center was … the only open studio space for printmaking with workshop offerings in all of Orange County.”

Photo courtesy of the Joseph P. Gerges

For the next five years, Gerges used Irvine Fine Arts Center to develop his printmaking technique and create a body of work. In late 2017, he submitted his proposal for a show there. “The Irvine Fine Arts Center had never really had a mid-career artist with such a vast amount of work and international visibility show in the space,” Gerges explains, “and I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to showcase what could be done with the support of a public space like the IFAC, while also bringing a high-caliber museum-quality show to the heart of Orange County, where art is often neglected.”

The work intended for exhibition included images of animal carcasses and, in some cases, blood. “My work deals with death, life, hardship and struggle while using animals as a metaphor for those experiences,” Gerges explains. “[It] is inspired by personal, real-life experiences — the trauma, divorce, illness, and death that has inundated the lives of both my daughters and [me] over these last 7 years…I felt that creating this visual dialogue was a necessary endeavor, a creative statement that helped me rediscover healing and substance in my own life — and I felt it could do the same for others.” He says, “The proposal was accepted and initially celebrated when we began the coordination process in early 2018.”

Around six months later, IFAC’s curator, Yevgenia Mikhalik, left the center, and then the trouble began. Since no new curator had been appointed, the curatorial role was assumed by the center’s director, Pat Gomez. Gerges recalls a discussion with Gomez, “We had a bit of an uncomfortable talk. She didn’t seem aware of the scope of the show and my work, but in speaking to the curator that [had] left, everything had been previously discussed in internal meetings and images were shared in depth prior to her departure. … A week later, I received an invitation to meet [Gomez] at her office, where she raised concerns that some of the imagery may be deemed offensive to their audience of adults and young children. … I offered to edit the work to work around her needs [by omitting an image of a pig being slaughtered and one of an open carcass, which was reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s work from the 1970s and Rembrandt’s carcass painting from the 1400s], but she said that wouldn’t be enough and that she was removing the option of the main gallery, [and] offered to edit about 70% of the work and move [the exhibit] into a rear space — out of public view, or I could decline the show altogether.”

Gomez did not respond to inquiries regarding this matter, but Irvine Weekly did receive a response from Irvine’s Community Services Manager, Sheila Driscoll. Driscoll confirms that Gomez was acting on behalf of the city’s interest as there was concern over how the images might affect children and families and that a “discussion ensued about how to present the artist’s work in a way that would allow parents the opportunity to select this experience for their family and that possibly moving the work to another gallery location just off the entrance [of IFAC], would allow individuals the choice to view the exhibit.”

Photo courtesy of Joseph P. Gerges

Gerges views this redacted version of his contract as part of an ongoing trend of censorship at IFAC. He says, “There was a painting [by Kerri Sabine-Wolf] that dealt with suicide, that had won first place in a juried exhibition. They would not publish the image of the work and would also not promote the image in their marketing materials as it showed an individual holding a gun to their head with butterflies [instead of blood] flying out of the back of their skull.” Given the option of a less prominent and significantly expurgated showcase, Gerges declined the offer and took to the internet with an open letter and a petition on Change.org. Gerges says that the petition garnered over 300 signatures in less than 48 hours and got the attention of Irvine’s City Council, Mayor Donald P. Wagner, and the city manager, John Russo.

Gerges says that Russo apologized for the manner in which the situation had played out. He recalls Russo assuring, “This issue was never going to occur again and that the city had taken the decision-making process out of one individual’s hands and made it a multi-tier system [with the details to be hashed out in 2019, when the commission meets and permanently adopts new protocols].” Russo offered Gerges the exhibition in accordance with the original agreement.

In a follow-up email, Russo also informed Gerges that the duration of his original show would be extended from one week to seven. Regarding concern for sensitive viewers, Russo’s email pointed out that “the city will draft a disclosure statement to be posted in the facility during your show to provide a disclosure to those that may find any images disturbing.”

Gerges bears no grudge against IFAC; furthermore, he will be donating 30 percent of the proceeds from his work to the center and for arts programming in Irvine. Additionally, he has spoken with Russo about initiating a grant program for Orange County artists, which would be modeled after the Los Angeles County’s California Community Foundation Grant, that offers $25,000 to Los Angeles artists.

Despite the experience, Gerges is pleased with the way things worked out for him and for the city. Naturally, he is happy that guests will have an opportunity to view his works. As controversial as some of the material is, he says, “The etchings and prints were created in homage to the great masterworks of Rembrandt, Käthe Kollwitz and Goya, amongst others.” Given Gerges’ background and resume, it certainly seems that a vote to shield the public from his work would have been a disservice to the arts.

Gerges’ show will take place at Irvine Fine Arts Center, 14321 Yale, Irvine, from Feb. 9 to March 30 with an artist talk on March 9 that will include a book signing and celebrate the release of his publication “Quietus.”