What Lies Beneath: Student art is controversial, let’s talk about it

Maddie Genoways, Staff Writer

On the surface, the art on display in a gallery serves up a fine visual feast, but seldom is a painting just a canvas, and rarely is an artistic choice made without reason. Behind every piece is a story, a deliberate choice on the artist’s part to convey something bigger. 

Sometimes that message is something deep and metaphorical, and sometimes it’s “I was bad at drawing horses, so I drew horses until it was painful to look at them anymore.” My point is: every piece of art has a purpose, and it would be disrespectful to the human behind the work to cover up or block out their message. Engagement is a central goal for an artist, art is made to be shared, to be discussed, contemplated, observed and yes, even disagreed with. 

If the piece made you think and feel, it doesn’t matter if what you felt while standing in front of it was positive or negative. Well, of course it matters, but it doesn’t make the work any less successful, and it doesn’t mean the artist behind it didn’t pour their time and energy into its creation.  

All of this prologue is to say: we should not limit ourselves to engaging with artwork deemed “appropriate.” College is the prime time for self-exploration, and if we cannot provide a safe place for experimentation and expression, we will grow stagnant and fearful of the world around us.  

That’s not to say that every artwork is suited for every occasion. You would not bring a modern art piece to a Renaissance gallery for the same reason you would not give a nuclear physics textbook to a fourth grader: that’s just not the audience it’s made for.  

But at WSC, we have a gallery that can be reshaped and molded to fit the artist. The Nordstrom Gallery serves as a blank canvas for professionals, faculty and students alike to share the fruits of their experimentation and experience. Of course, a freedom like this also comes with rules. 

The many rules and restrictions of what works are allowed to be shared in public spaces are not unfamiliar to the creative minds of WSC, but there are times we need to push back against rules and question what it means to be an artist in the public eye.  

I know not everyone is familiar with the traditions and customs held sacred within the brick confines of the Art and Design department, so I will do my best to summarize the practice.  

All art students take a variety of hands-on “studio” classes, where they spend hours learning, practicing and building up a portfolio of work and experience.  

At the end of their final year, studio art students have one last opportunity to showcase their art in the Nordstrom Visual Arts Gallery in the Conn Library in a Senior Exhibit. Student art is professionally displayed in the gallery, where it remains for the world to see for the next few weeks. So as you might expect, this is a pretty big deal for art students. They spend years learning their craft, and months preparing pieces for a specialized collaborative exhibit of their own making.  

The Senior Exhibit is a chance for young artists to grow and create on their own terms, which is why censorship is something of a buzzword in the art program, and why the most recent Senior Exhibit has stirred up debate about “mature” art and what is appropriate to showcase in a public, state-owned exhibit.  

Now, before I go into the details of real-world events, I’d like to mention that this article was not written with the intention to call anyone out or name any names, only to tell the story of students and advocate for transparent discussion. Because of this, I will be leaving out all names of those responsible for changes to the gallery, (except for the mentioned artists) and will use “the gallery committee” as a general term for all the gallery staff. 

“What Lies Beneath” is an exhibit showcasing life, death, drama, femininity and the exploration of purpose and meaning. The show features work from seniors Courtney Dahlberg, Zoe Nielsen, Skylar Cooper and Stacy Long.  

The exhibit itself is incredible to experience; bold, colorful, dramatic and weird. Each piece is entirely unique to its creator, yet extremely cohesive in theme, but what sparks intrigue in this show is the controversy that faces you in the doorway: 

“This exhibit contains mature content,” printed on a sign as soon as you enter. 

The primary reason for this warning can be found on the opposite side of the central gallery wall. Spanning the entire length of the partition is Skylar Cooper’s mixed media 250-hour labor of love, Mother Nature, a part-sculpture, part-mural abstract celebration of the vagina as a symbol of creation and womanhood.  

“I wanted this piece to showcase the beauty of femininity as a powerful and natural thing,” Cooper said. “I created it with the intention that it would sit at the entrance of the gallery, where it would be this big ‘wow’ moment for anyone walking by.” 

Unfortunately, when presented with Mother Nature, the gallery committee had much more to say than just “wow.” 

“Right before [Cooper] finished the project, the committee tells her that they’re not comfortable with it being so visible and that they think it might cause problems,” Nielsen said. “They said that her piece wasn’t allowed to be seen from outside of the gallery, which meant it had to be hidden from public view through all of the glass walls in the gallery. The committee had decided she would have to reposition walls inside the gallery to make a ‘cubicle’ in one of the back corners to effectively hide her piece inside of.”  

The initial proposition of the committee was to relocate Cooper’s piece to the back interior of the gallery, where it would not be visible to anyone passing through the library. “We were incredibly offended and upset, they had decided to shove her piece on a corner without even letting us know there was an issue,” Nielsen said. 

After negotiation between the committee, the college, Art and Design faculty and the student artists, an agreement was reached to post a warning sign for mature content, and to display Cooper’s Mother Nature on the opposite of the front wall, where it is central to the gallery as a whole, but less visible to the outside.  

While not overly pleased with the outcome, Cooper said she is aware of the Nordstrom gallery’s limitations as a public, state-funded gallery, but maintains her work was never intended to be provocative or sexual.  

“In my mind, the whole debate was oversexualizing my art, making it into something it’s not. I wanted to showcase the beauty of femininity in my own way,” Cooper said. “I don’t think nudity is something we should hide. It’s a natural part of life, and treating the female body as something inherently sexual feels wrong to me.” 

Cooper is not the only artist in the gallery to use nudity in her work, but her piece is the most overt. Much of Nielsen’s work also relies on the female form, with her Life-Sized Anatomy Self Portrait, which faces directly into the library depicting a pierced nipple and pubic hair, and Lost Our Heads depicting two conjoined nude women.  

“The committee apparently decided my work wasn’t offensive,” Nielsen said. “To me, that poses another smaller issue. When does the female naked body become offensive- only when it reaches a certain size? Why does the gallery get to make that decision?” 

As a result of this issue, the Art and Design Department has “begun drafting gallery policies to protect artists’ freedom of expression, in accordance with NSCS policy, while also being sensitive to the general public in the highly visible portions of this state-owned public space,” said in recent statement about the gallery incident.  

These guidelines will set more clear expectations of what is allowed to be displayed in the school gallery, and will allow students to work with faculty to determine how to proceed with potentially “mature” pieces on a case-by-case basis. 

On the whole, the faculty of the Art and Design Department has typically been very open and receptive to “mature” or “controversial” themes being presented in student art, even in art made for graded studio projects. 

In their statement, the department stated their support for student rights, saying “we want our students and campus community to know that we do not have any desire to censor student artwork.”  

I have always been met with enthusiasm and compromise from my professors in regards to making art about the more private sectors of life. If you sit through enough class critiques you would get pretty desensitized to nudity and open to mid-class political, theological and social discussions too.  

It is always fun to watch potential new students tour the art building while there’s a whole skeleton posed on the modeling table, or a giant yarn vagina on the wall. In the wise words of my dad after we finished our tour of the Studio building my freshman year: “There you have it, honey. You walk into the art house, you’re gonna see some tits.” 

So, what we can take away from this whole ordeal, is that unclear expectations and real passion on both sides of an argument will only lead to heart and headache.  

According to Cooper, this experience has only strengthened her will to continue creating art exploring the “potentially mature” nature of femininity.  

“I guess I’ll just have to find galleries that will respect my work, because I’m not going to stop making these things,” Cooper said. 

While WSC is making good on their promise of clearer gallery policies, the disrespect towards student artists was real, and the sting of having poured heart and soul into a work only to have it rejected at the last minute is a hurt that will stick.  

“This experience has unfortunately impacted my view of this school’s gallery. In classes we have freedom of creativity, including nudity, that we can include in our assignments,” Neilsen said. “To hear that graduating seniors are required to put their artwork up in a space that will try to hide your best work if they find it potentially uncomfortable was hard to hear, and we felt unsupported both as artists and as students.”