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State of the Arts

Published November 26, 2003 at 5:00 p.m.

Two months ago, "Showroom" was a stop on the Art Hop, the September gallery walk cum block party sponsored by Burlington's South End Arts and Business Association. The installation by Susan Smereka and Jane Horner inside a former auto showroom at Flynn Avenue and Shelburne Street was "sensational," says SEABA director Lorna-Kay Peale. Floor-to-ceiling sheets of white paper covered the interior, which was visible through plate-glass windows splattered with red paint -- suggesting, says Horner, "the surface one presents to the world, and the flare of emotions."

Emotions flared, all right. In early October, someone smashed in one of the windows. Neighbors complained to the building's owner, Dave Birmingham of the adjacent Burlington Subaru-Hyundai dealership, that the artwork had become an eyesore. Finally, Horner was asked to dismantle her installation.

How did "Showroom" become so offensive? Though Peale says she was surprised by the negative reaction, she suspects the piece simply wore out its welcome. On the night of Art Hop, she says, the work was augmented by dramatic lighting and a dance performance. Without those elements, "it looked sort of like something that had been neglected and abandoned -- not just a plain glass showroom." And the understanding among Art Hop artists, she says, is that all work comes down after September.

Horner knows that some observers interpreted the scraps of red bursting from the white interior as blood and gore. She also heard comments like, "Oh, that's just some war protest." She says she and Smereka had only intended beauty. "I recall aiming for glory, resplendence, exuberance."

But she's not unhappy that the work raised some hackles, even if she wishes that she'd been given the time to transform the piece into something informed by "an easier kind of joy." She says she actually enjoyed the process of disassembling it and hopes that drawing attention to the controversy will spark public debate.

Horner's quick to praise Birmingham, though. He let Art Hop use the showroom and the Maynard Auto building, which he also owns, as a to way demonstrate his intentions to make the entire corner more attractive. When neighbors declared that "Showroom" had done just the opposite, "I really understand he had to say OK," says Horner.

It doesn't look as if this experience will have a negative impact on future art- business collaborations, says Peale. "The idea of using unused space is a treasure. It's a very big, big plus for Art Hop and the community."

books to watch out for

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Alison Bechdel's queer comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For," and last week the West Bolton resident got a dandy anniversary gift: a hefty advance from Houghton Mifflin for a book she's been working on for four years. Bechdel won't divulge the dollar figure, except to note, "You can say I got more than Wesley Clark." She will say, though, that the book, My Father's House, represents a significant departure from her strip. "I'm calling it a graphic memoir," says Bechdel. That's graphic as in illustrated, not as in explicit. Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and Lynda Barry have tread this ground successfully in the past, but for Bechdel it's new territory. "It's a very personal autobiographical story about growing up with my gay father," she says. The twist is that she did not find out he was gay until after she came out to her parents herself. Aficionados of Dykes, take note: In addition to the strip, which appears in 60-some papers (including this one) around the country, Bechdel's 10th collection, Dykes and Sundry Other Carbon-Based Life Forms to Watch Out For, has just been published by Alyson Press, and Firebrand Books recently reissued her nine previous volumes with groovy new covers.

smart is beautiful

In the 1970s and '80s, Marion Ettlinger photographed local musicians for a series of music-issue covers in the Vanguard Press, Seven Days' alt-weekly predecessor. Since then she's become the photographer of choice for book-jacket portraits of famous and not-so-famous authors. It's no wonder; in Ettlinger's just-published book, appropriately entitled Author Photo, she makes all her subjects look positively gaw-jis. Last week, on the eve of her own New York City book-release party, I had to ask: Are writers better-looking than your average mortals? "They use their minds and that usually makes them, if not gorgeous, pretty interesting-looking. There's something going on in there -- that's good for the face." Take that, "Extreme Makeover!"

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David Warner


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