The Naked City Sexual Politics, West Hollywood Style
The City of West Hollywood is well known as one of the most liberal cities in America, so it’s more than a little ironic that the city officials have been accused of censoring the artistic work of photographer Brooke Mason who curated shows of women’s artwork at three venues in that city in conjunction with Women’s History Month this March. The controversy reveals a double standard by the city when it comes to the display of male and female nudity.
Mason’s work features provocative poses of women, often partially nude, posing in power positions over barely clothed men—apparently in the aftermath of a tryst or party. The meaning is often cryptic. The saga began with “Exposed,” a group show at Plummer Park which also displayed a women’s artist-themed show. Two of Mason’s works, Voyeur (2016) and Glass Ceiling (2016) were removed by the city after patrons of the park complained they were disturbed by Mason’s images of partial female nudity.
Mason’s curated group shows of local female artists were displayed at West Hollywood City Hall, the city library and at Robert Kuo gallery on Melrose. I attended the opening of the show at the Kuo gallery on March 16, when Mason pointed me to one of her large photographic works titled Soar (2016), which she said had been banned by officials at West Hollywood City Hall the day before, over Mason’s strong protest. Soar shows a petite, but athletic, ballerina in mid-flight with her tutu pulled down to her waist, exposing her breasts. The dancer is small-breasted and, after the piece was removed one of the excuses proffered by officials was that the model looked to be underage, an accusation vehemently denied by Mason and the model.
Mason told me that prior to the installation at City Hall, two city employees, both women, had problems with Soar, claiming it displayed genitalia (plainly not evident in the photograph) which was inappropriate for an installation at City Hall. Mason talked with Andrew Campbell, the City’s cultural affairs administrator, who backed up the other two city officials claiming Soar violated the city’s nudity guidelines. Campbell and City Manager Paul Arevalo rejected several of Mason’s other artistic pieces as too risqué, recommending she substitute commercial photography work. Mason refused and the City Hall show opened with no work by Mason.
West Hollywood readily displays depictions of male nudity on Santa Monica Boulevard billboards and during the Pride Parade. The next show planned for the city’s Plummer Park is titled “Cock, Paper, Scissors.” The press release describes the show as “a celebration of numerous uses of gay male pornography” and a posted preview of one of the show’s artworks depicts erect phalluses.
Mason told me: “The city supported the Women Manifest show to celebrate and uplift the history of women and what these people are doing is quite the opposite. Apart from the double standard of men’s bodies versus women’s bodies in this city, this controversy highlights the oppression of women. It saddens me that some of the people who have spoken out against my art are female. I am a feminist and not shy to say so.”
At the regular West Hollywood City Council meeting on March 21, Mayor Lindsey Horvath and Councilman John Duran apologized to Mason for the incident. Horvath made it clear she did not support the City’s action, declaring, “In fact, I don’t find her work offensive at all… You can rest assured I stand firmly in support of showcasing artwork that empowers women and celebrates our bodies.” She called for improvements in “consistency” of the city’s guidelines.
After Mason contacted the National Coalition Against Censorship and American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, they investigated the controversy and on March 28 wrote a joint letter to seven West Hollywood officials, chastising them for “actions, based on what appears to be a… dislike of the work on the part of city officials, [raising] serious First Amendment concerns. We urge the City of West Hollywood to immediately put the work back on display and, in the future, draft exhibition policies that are consistent with First Amendment principles.”
After receiving the NCAC and ACLU letter, the City offered to extend Mason’s shows, even placing them in a new venue if necessary. However, Mason says she will not be satisfied until the City’s opaque policy on displays of nudity in public exhibits is clarified with an emphasis on gender equality.