The Sex Police are back in the Triangle! But, sadly, it’s not the glorious 1990s funk/rock band but a morals brigade of a more literal kind, one with a willingness to entertain voices calling for state censorship. Even if it was only the voice of one angry man screaming in a lobby.

On Oct. 21, two police officers arrived at West Village Historic Loft Apartments in downtown Durham and instructed the management to remove artwork on display in the upscale complex’s lobby. Assistant property manager Cecily Ferguson, who curates works exhibited at West Village, says that Officer B. J. King told her that a complaint about the exhibition had been received and that after researching the matter he had determined that displaying the paintings violated N.C. law. With a copy of North Carolina Crimes in hand, he reportedly sited G.S. 14-190.14, which states that displaying material “harmful to minors” is a Class 2 misdemeanor. Ferguson decided to turn the paintings around to face the wall until the artist could be contacted.

The oil paintings, expressionistic self-portraits by West Village resident Cynthia Grow, had been put on display as part of Downtown Durham’s Culture Crawl, which took place Oct. 20. According to Grow, children attended the show’s opening and the work was well received. Grow believes that the complaint might have been motivated by a misreading of the workin particular the ones titled “Oblivion” and “Sacrilegious Hands.” In these portraits, the nude subject’s hand is placed in proximity to her genitalia. Grow acknowledges that at a glance the hand positioning could possibly be interpreted as masturbation, but ironically her intention was to convey a kind of modesty. According to Grow, the painting’s subject feels unease with exposing her body and is perhaps actually positioning the hand to cover the vagina. In her written artistic statement, Grow said her works deal with “themes of female identity and experienceThe Male Gaze.” The 10 paintings, uniform in format and style, all contain text that contribute to the understanding of each portrait.

In response to the police intervention, Grow covered the bottom two-thirds of the paintings with brown paper in order to mimic the treatment pornographic magazines receive in convenience stores. It is a fitting act of self-censorship since G.S. 14-190.14 outlines in detail how to legally display pornography for commercial purposes. Attaching an essay dealing with censorship in art history, Grow considers the exhibition a continuing project. According to West Village management, in the week following the police visit, Captain R.C. Evans came to the apartment building and viewed the paintings. Corporate manager Brenda Condran said that Evans offered apologies and said that a mistake had been made and that the police department had no business regulating the artwork that the company chose to display on its private property.

Efforts to reach Officer King and Captain Evans were unsuccessful. However, the department’s public relations coordinator Kammie Michael said in an e-mail, “[King] gave the people at West Village a copy of the obscenity statute, but at no time did he threaten to make any arrests. Capt. Evans spoke with our legal advisors and told the people at West Village that we would not be prohibiting them from exhibiting their pictures.”

The complaining citizen is presumably the older man who stepped into West Village’s office approximately an hour before the police arrived. According to Ferguson and property manager Sabrina Gendreau, the man shouted at staff and condemned the paintings as pornography. He then left the premises.

However negatively certain individuals may have responded to Grow’s paintings, it’s clear that her work is, as a legal matter, not obscene. Duke law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said that such obvious works of art are “so far from the line of obscenity that the officer should have done nothing.”

Although the censorious response to Grow’s paintings may seem laughable, Durham attorney Dan Ellison, whose practice includes art and museum law, was concerned that such police actions could “generate fear in art exhibitors that could have a chilling effect upon the work that they decide to display.”

If nothing else, this episode shows that in the age of the USA PATRIOT Act and the Military Commissions Act, defense of civil liberties begins locally. Cecily Ferguson regrets that the complaining party has remained anonymous. “I would have liked to create a dialogue and get to the root of why he found the work offensive to him and to children,” she said.

Four ways of looking at a woman: (clockwise from top left) “Oblivion,” “Touch,” “Il corpo” and “Sacrilegious Hands”
Images courtesy of Cynthia Grow