Nips and tucks
Says the city of Reno to artist Bruce Lindsay: If those nips aren’t tucked under some duct tape by the weekend, your free expression will cost you $500 a day
Breasts painted on the window of the Reno Jazz Club are out of place, a city of Reno code enforcement officer says. Painter Robert Bruce Lindsay responds that, no, Nevada is out of place. “Nevada’s three states south of Alabama,” says Lindsay, 53, who’s also a poet, musician and criminal-defense attorney who specializes in death row cases.
He and two other members of the Poor Man’s Jazz Band are in the West Second Street Bar, where carpenters are busy renovating booths. Screaming radial saws and percussive hammers overwhelm parts of the conversation.
Lindsay, the singer, has a voice as rich and strong as a whiskey-filled bonbon.
“It’s a very simple painting,” he says, referring to the red, green and white lines caked on with a palette knife, the abstractions of band members, dancers and breasts. “What I try to paint is emotion. It’s the emotion of going to a jazz club.”
The guitar player and pianist both introduce themselves as Joe. The first Joe wears an Australian bush hat and black-leather vest with an Operation Desert Storm patch and pin and colorful ribbons that signify assorted commendations, including a Congressional Medal of Honor and a Purple Heart.
Lindsay says, “But there’s always a balancing act between the individual’s right to expression and society’s right to intolerance.”
There’s a lull in the hammers and saws. Poor Man’s Jazz Band, Lindsay’s new release, plays; he sings along with himself about an ex-wife:
You can blame it all, you can blame it on me;
It’s been 25 years and I’m finally free.
Guitar-playing Joe’s thin sleeveless arm sets down a mug of Budweiser and whips a harmonica to his mouth. Never mind that he lost his lips to a piece of shrapnel in Vietnam—he’s good.
The second Joe, a retired lawyer, wears prescription glasses over his eyes and sunglasses atop his thinning scalp. He appears peevish.
“Art is illegal in Reno,” Lindsay continues. We have Artown every summer, he says, but it’s “very tame, very considerate. None of it challenges the beliefs of our society, which is the basis of art. So do we have art in Reno? No, we have bighorn sheep that are calculated to not offend, not educate. It is the opposite of everything art stands for.”
Outside the bar and up the street a bit, bureaucrats dismiss the notion that a painting done by a widely known local artist could be construed as art instead of advertising.
"[This issue] has nothing to do with the perception of art,” says Steve Frady, media relations for the city. “It is simply a code compliance issue. Calling it anything else is inaccurate.”
Jim Bushey is the enforcer of those codes. If somebody complains to the city about unsightly junk or trash on someone’s yard, for example, Bushey enforces the nuisance ordinance by sending the owner a notice to remove the offending material. That’s the warning. The next offense costs $100. Then $200. Then $500 per day.
One person had called about the abstract breasts on the Reno Jazz Club’s facade, Bushey says, before declining further comment.
At the Reno Jazz Club, the two plate glass windows closest to the door contain neon signs, one glowing “Jazz,” the other “Funk.”
The two windows farthest from the door were busted out three weeks ago, says owner Alex Panschar. They were replaced with sheets of plywood. Lindsay painted the controversial image on the unsightly boards the day before Bushey stopped by.
Inside, away from the music of the barroom, thrift-store chairs and couches lining the walls retreat into darkness. Two spotlights in opposite corners converge on a pool table in the center, where Panschar, 35, and artist David Dory, 39, discuss the debate.
“It seems like on the one hand [Reno] says, ‘We’re all for the art,'” Dory says. “Then they forbid a public showing of [Lindsay’s] work, an artist whose work has been featured in galleries.”
An expansive 7-by-16-foot painting by Dory hangs on the wall facing the hallway. It features four nudes, all previous bartenders at the Fourth Street Jazz Club, lying down on grayscale sand dunes like four compass points.
“I don’t want to make any waves,” Panschar says. “If there’s a legitimate beef, I want to be in compliance. I’d just like an explanation.”
A friend of Panschar’s, who was at the bar when the code enforcement officer came by, was unsure what the officer was asking.
“At first [Bushey] gave me his card,” says Jon Jaccard, 21. “He didn’t even say his name.
“I said, ‘Can I help you with something?’
” ‘The women have to have tops.’
“I looked around. ‘What women?’
” ‘I need tops on the women outside by the end of this weekend.’ “
The club put duct tape over the nipples until Lindsay could paint a blouse over them. Turns out one city code, the sign ordinance, dictates that a business can’t advertise a product that is not available within.
Outside the bar, in more refined environs such as college campuses and government offices, the debate whispers on.
“A topless female is not an accurate depiction of what’s offered inside,” says Frady. “[The sign] came into compliance the minute they dressed her up.”
Allen Lichtenstein, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney in Las Vegas, is beyond incredulous and can’t stop laughing.
“Creative,” he says. “Absurd, however. Whenever governments want to engage in censorship, they will invariably say it’s not about the First Amendment.”
He poses a hypothetical: A French restaurant has a painting of the Eiffel Tower, but inside you don’t find the Eiffel Tower—is this a code violation?
Frady was once the editor of the Nevada Appeal. As an ex-newspaperman, he makes it clear that he deals in facts, not what-ifs. “I’d have to see it,” he says. “Every case is different.”
“Let’s deal with the reality,” Lichtenstein says. “No one thought it was an adult club. Some abstract breasts offended someone’s sensibilities, and the city came up with a lame excuse that wouldn’t withstand scrutiny.”
“The sad thing about the story is that a private enterprise was intimidated by government bureaucracy instead of testing its First Amendment rights,” says Richard Siegel, president of the ACLU of Nevada.
“Our message is to the larger artistic community of Nevada. The ACLU stands ready and has the resources necessary to defend artists, whether commercial, aesthetic or political.”
If anyone thinks the government is attempting to restrict their rights, he says, “the first thing they should do is contact the ACLU.”
“Our code enforcement officers work hard to gain voluntary compliance,” Frady says.
By that measure, Jim Bushey did his job well.
Back at the West Second Street Bar, Lindsay’s voice is a lullaby. He downs a nip of gin.
“I can cover [the breasts]," he says, "but that won’t change the problem."