Art or insult? 12 artists who push social boundaries

By Marilynn McLachlan

John Wayne Gacy produced a number of paintings from his jail cell.
John Wayne Gacy produced a number of paintings from his jail cell.

It is the job of the artist to both comment on, and to push the boundaries of any given society. Artists have long used visually jarring images to induce controversy, questioning and analysis.

As debate swirls over the inclusion of an alleged killer's photo in an Auckland art gallery exhibition, we look at 12 artists who have shocked and enraged the public.

1. Immersion (Piss Christ) - Andres Serrano

Serrano's 1987 photograph is a small crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine. It was part of a series that included statues placed in fluids. Serrano denied that his intention was to cause insult to Christianity, saying that it was a reflection of the cheapening of Christian icons.

The photograph has been vandalised numerous times and any galleries that exhibited the art were subject to public outcry.

Serrano received death threats over the work.

2. Myra - Marcus Harvey

The 1995 portrait of Myra Hindley is completely made using the handprints of small children and became notorious during an exhibition in London in 1997. The large painting is a reconstruction of a police photograph taken of Myra Hindley after her arrest in 1965 for the murder of five children aged between 10 and 17.

The piece caused major controversy, with members of the families of her victims pleading that it was devastating for them. Charity Kidscape accused the Royal Academy of Art of "sick exploitation of dead children".

The piece was vandalised twice before being displayed behind Perspex glass.

3. Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) - John Singer Sargent

This 1884 oil painting depicts Madame Pierre Guatreau in a sensual pose with pale skin, a dark dress with a cinched waist. Gautreau represented the new type of Frenchwoman - the parisienne, one known for both beauty and sophistication and who was willing to use both to advance their societal status. Sargent was fascinated by her and enthusiastically painted the beauty. However, the portrait was not well received - people were both shocked and scandalised.

After Gautreau's identity was revealed, her family demanded that Sargent withdraw the painting but he refused. Humiliated and disappointed, both Gautreau and Sargent soon left Paris for London.

4. The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand - C.F. Goldie and Louis J. Steele

Based on Theodore Gericault's famous The Raft of the Medusa, The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand is one of the most famous and controversial historic paintings in the country. Although it was widely praised at the time, it has since been criticised, like much of Goldie's work, for its historical inaccuracies.

It is now viewed as a romantic fabrication. Some people object to the portrayal of desperate and starving Maori who were shipwrecked rather than as skilled navigators.

5. Shark - David Cerney

This 2005 sculpture features a life-like figure of Saddam Hussein, with his hands and feet shackled together in a tank. Cerney created it as a parody of a 1991 piece by Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

The piece has been banned in both Belgium and Poland for fears it would "shock people, including Muslims".

6. Tame Iti looking like Osama bin Laden - Hohepa Thompson


Hohepa Thompson. Photo / Lynda Feringa

Runner-up in the T-shirt placement category of the 2012 Miromoda Maori Fashion Design Competition, Thompson's depiction of activist Tame Iti looking like Osama bin Laden caused mixed reaction.

Some people were outraged at the use of Tame Iti's face. "Tame's Whanau has asked Hori to stop using this image as he and they find it offensive, and proper protocols were not followed," wrote Tangatawhenua website.

Thompson said that he drew his inspiration from his personal struggle to find his Maori roots, with his judgment clouded by negative stereotypes and media portrayal.

7. Miss Kitty - Paolo Schmidlin

This 2007 sculpture features the now retired Pope Benedict XVI in drag, wearing lace stockings, knickers and a wrap around his shoulders. He also wears a feminine wig. When it exhibited in Italy it drew quick and harsh protest, with the Catholic Anti-Defamation League saying that the sculpture was "a vulgar offence against Christ's vicar and the feelings of Roman Catholics".

8. You Are What You Read - Guillermo Vargas

In an exhibition in Nicaragua in 2007, Vargas included an emaciated dog tied to a wall with rope, with 'Eres Lo Que Lees' - You Are What You Read written on the wall in dog food - just out of reach from the dog. Outrage over the treatment of the dog ensued, with reports that the dog had starved to death as part of the artist's work. A petition to ban his work from the 2008 Bienal Centroamericana in Hoduras received over four million signatures.

The director of the gallery claimed that the dog was fed regularly and only tied up for three hours on the first day before it escaped. Vegas said the controversy reflected people's hypocrisy, as people didn't care about stray and hungry dogs.

9. Multiples: The Artwork of John Wayne Gacy - John Wayne Gacy

American serial killer and rapist, John Wayne Gacy, was also known as the Killer Clown. He was convicted of the sexual assault and murder of a minimum of 33 teenage boys and young men. He was sentenced to death and in the 14 years he spent on death row, he produced a number of paintings from his jail cell. His attorney auctioned off much of the work, and while some of it was burnt, the Westley Myles of the Arts displayed the art in 2011 amid much controversy - including the responsibility to the victims of his crimes.

10. Los Intocables (The Untouchables) - Erik Ravelo

Cuban artist Erik Ravelo was no stranger to controversy when he created 'The Untouchables' - a series of photographs with children in the crucifixion pose on the back of various adults. Each photograph portrayed a contemporary method that children lose their innocence, including nuclear war, molestation and gun violence. Ravelo set up a Facebook page and it reached 18,000 'likes' within a few days before the site prevented other people from liking the page, and prevented him from uploading any more. Eventually Facebook deemed the material too shocking and removed it.

11. "Enemies" Exhibition - Gil Vecente

Brazilian artist Gil Vecente caused a stir when he exhibited his Inimigos (Enemies) collection in 2010. Each of the nine charcoal drawings depict an assassination of one of the world's most powerful figures of the time, including George W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth II, Pope Benedict XVI and his own president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Vecente responded to suggestions that his work should be banned by saying, "They claim it justifies crime. Stealing public money is not a crime? The reports on TV aren't trying to justify crimes? Only my work is justification of crime?"

12. Clayton Weatherston portrait - Liam Gerrard

A 2.5m charcoal and acrylic painting of convicted murderer Clayton Weatherston by Liam Gerrard created a furious backlash when it was entered in the Adam Portraiture Award in 2010.

Weatherston stabbed his 22-year old victim, Sophie Elliott, 216 times and was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 18 years. Upon learning about the portrait, Sophie Elliot's father suggested a title for it, "The Epitome of Evil".

National Portrait Gallery director Avenal McKinnon agreed that the portrait was contentious, but defended the right to display it. "You could, in some countries, say artists are not allowed to paint bad people or murderers. But in New Zealand we have this wonderful freedom, it's what democracy is all about."

The art was later disqualified from the competition because Gerrard did not receive Weatherston's permission to paint his image.

- nzherald.co.nz

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