Dick and Jane stuff
Male genitalia photos stir reaction at Chico State
“That’s just wrong. I don’t need to see that every day on my way to class.”
These are typical of the comments made lately by passing students, both male and female, stopping to view the student photos on display outside photography instructor Wei Hsueh’s classroom in Ayres Hall on the Chico State campus.
Students in Hsueh’s Beginning Photography class shot the assorted black-and-white photos for a “depth of field” assignment. The work that has stirred a small tempest of public opinion is by senior intermedia major Lars Rasmussen, who juxtaposed close-up, detailed photos of his testicles and scrunched, flaccid penis with shots of oysters and mussels (three photos of which are featured on the board).
“I’m interested in the realism of photography and a chance to explore these kinds of areas,” Rasmussen says, adding that his influences include homoerotic art from artists such as Matthew Barney and Keith Herring. “I think some teachers here are not as open-minded about this kind of work, especially in a beginners’ class.”
Rasmussen says that class reaction to his work was good, but he was more interested in the dumbfounded reactions in the hallways.
“I like that people have to stop and look at it to figure out what it is,” he explains.
Scrotum close-ups are hardly considered shock art these days, but these photos are apparently enough at Chico State to spur discussion, as well as at least one formal complaint so far to the department head and alleged comments from a Butte College instructor who was offended when he used the room.
“Deep down I think people still have a fear of these subjects—body issues in general,” says Hsueh (pronounced “Schway"). “I have had students offended by older nude bodies in the past.”
Student Kiara Thorup, whose work on the wall includes close-ups of her pregnant sister’s breasts, moved here from the Bay Area and is not used to the reactions she has witnessed at Chico State.
“People seem to be asking, ‘Why is this art?'” Thorup says. She believes that her pregnancy photos inspired less reaction because they are considered more natural, or “motherly,” and thus are more accepted by the mainstream.
Hsueh explains that every class she teaches has “such a different energy” and that this class was very open and people felt free to do the kind of work they wanted.
“I think [Rasmussen’s] work is funny—traditionally, female genitals are compared to flowers and males to fruit,” Hsueh says. “We’re so used to the penis involved in jokes—either too big or too small. To me, it’s an interesting thing. Guys seem more offended [by the photos] than the girls. … Guys are just stricken.”
A place where images of Rasmussen’s privates might be more appreciated is across the street at the Café Max coffee shop, where naked female bodies are currently on display as part of the eighth-annual Erotic Art show presented by the CSU, Chico Women’s Center over the last two weeks (exhibit ends Friday, Nov. 22).
This year’s small-scale show has the usual stated intent of “Celebrating part of one’s self ignored or defined in a negative or degrading way.” Alongside the body paintings and photos, there are some poems posted. One work, from Amy Brugnano, celebrates the joy of “Masturbating in the Mirror": “My rosy-pink vagina slobbers over my fingers. … I taste like perfectly ripened tomatoes.”
But most of the pieces convey a darker tone: Jessica Bailley’s painting “Catch-22” features tiny angel figurines inside a furry box placed over the genitalia of a dreary, gray-painted nude female (sans head)—and Karen Bowles’ painting “Untitled” seems to depict a mash of male and female bodies in a violent, almost orgiastic explosion of red color.
It might be worth noting that we have two local art exhibits concerning sexuality at the same time as two highly publicized local sexual assaults involving teenaged girls, yet it isn’t the violence or anger in some of the artwork that is receiving student attention, it’s the “ugliness” of male genitalia as opposed to female from a class project.
Maybe female forms have been so thoroughly exploited by popular culture that they have become commonplace—whereas a limp dick on a wall stops traffic. Regardless, Beavis and Butthead-level reactions to some tastefully done photographs seem pretty silly in this day and age—especially in an art building.