Artwork depicting nude couples is removed from Vashon gallery after building owner objects

The owner of the building that houses Two Wall Gallery abruptly removed several works in the gallery's latest show last week, prompting an outcry from the artists, the curator and other members of the Island's arts community.

The owner of the building that houses Two Wall Gallery abruptly removed several works in the gallery’s latest show last week, prompting an outcry from the artists, the curator and other members of the Island’s arts community.

Louise Rice, who owns the property along with her husband Ray Rice and daughter Wendy Rice, paid a visit to the building with her daughter last Tuesday morning and became upset after viewing “Go Figure: Body of Work,” a group show by eight artists that contains numerous nude portraits.

“It was pornography, and I won’t put up with it,” Rice said later from her Burien home. “It’s our hallway, and my husband and daughter and I don’t like it.”

But Jack Strubbe, the show’s curator who has mounted exhibits off and on for the past three years in the space, said he was baffled by Rice’s actions, especially since the gallery has been the site of many other exhibits with political and other controversial content.

“She has never expressed anything like this in the past, and I’ve had work that I’ve considered much riskier than this,” he said. Rice, whose family has owned the 1927 brick building on the corner of Vashon Highway and Bank Road for many years, took issue with the work of two Island artists in particular — Greg Davila and Monica Gripman.

She removed Davila’s work — a set of nine soft-focused photographs that showed semi-nude, embracing same sex couples — as well as Gripman’s pen-and-ink drawings of fully clothed teenage girls. One of those drawings included text with a profane word in it. She left the artwork of the other seven artists — much of which included varying degrees of nudity — on the walls.

Ray Rice said that one of the reasons his wife removed Davila’s works was because of their depictions of gay couples.

“The entire homosexual content was part of it,” he said. “We have a right to critique what goes on in the building.”

Ray added that he and his wife, who are both in their 80s, “have nothing against gay people.”

“They can do whatever they want to do, but Louise didn’t think it was appropriate to show the homosexuals doing their thing in the building, and that’s her prerogative,” he said. 

The family no longer wants Strubbe to have anything to do with the gallery, Louise Rice added.

“I don’t want him doing the art in the hall,” she said. “He’s too far out.”

Strubbe, a member of the Vashon Tile Guild and a high-profile player in the larger arts community, said he had no idea Louise Rice would find the exhibit objectionable.

“I’m a little startled because it appeared that either she or her daughter were incensed by the homosexual content,” he said. “She has known for years that I’m gay, so if that is the case, it’s blindsided me.”

Two Wall Gallery holds an unusual status in the Island’s art scene. Unlike other galleries, it is — as the name implies — simply two walls that make up the hallway in a building that houses a handful of retail outlets.

Strubbe doesn’t lease the space. According to a description of the gallery on its website, Two Wall has no formal business structure, pays no rent and is run solely at the discretion of adjoining businesses.

And as Strubbe noted, this isn’t the first time a show he curated stirred controversy.

His last show at Two Wall, a two-person exhibit of the work of Seattle artists John Brucker and Michael O’Driscoll, included paintings that variously portrayed Christ as a clown, a drunk and a graffiti artist. In another painting, the Virgin Mary’s face was replaced with a monkey’s head.

The show — on display in December and January — prompted concern by some gallery-goers and nearby shopkeepers, who questioned whether it was appropriate during the Christmas season.

According to George Wright, who manages the Heron’s Nest shop in the building, an arts and crafts consignment shop operated by Vashon Allied Arts, one viewer was so offended by the Virgin Mary-as-a-monkey piece that he or she took it down from the gallery wall and placed it on the gallery floor, with its canvas side to the wall.

But according to Wright and other nearby shopkeepers, Strubbe’s February show seemed different.

“I thought it was tasteful and sensitive,” said Sally Shivers, co-owner of Dova Silks. “But it’s hard because the gallery space is sort of a freebie — so it is a little like (the owner’s) living room.”

Wright also did not take issue with the exhibit.

“The four business people here had no problem with it — it was the person who owned the building,” Wright said. “That’s their right. Nobody pays any rent in that hallway.”

Greg Davila, who shot the photographs of his gay friends especially for Strubbe’s show, said that his photographs were not explicit, even though they did contain nudity.

“These photographs were about love,” he said. “I wanted the photos to show the beauty in my friends’ love.

Why should it be hidden? It’s here to be celebrated.”

Still, Davila said he was not surprised by what had happened to his photographs, which were hung in the gallery Feb. 4.

“I knew what the response would be,” he said. “I was just surprised it took two weeks. I’m glad they waited until after Valentine’s Day.”

Davila added that he had no doubt that the only reason his photographs were taken down was because they depicted gay themes.

“I’m half Mexican and half Native American, so I’ve been discriminated against before,” he said. “But it’s always so ugly, trying to prove it.”

For her part, Monica Gripman weighed in with a written statement that read in part, “It is alarming to me when any individual or group of people decides for another what is ‘appropriate’ or ‘reasonable’ to experience. … I would like to believe that this community would welcome the artistic risk takers, the ones that drive you to ‘feel,’ no matter what that feeling may be.”

Islanders can judge the controversial artworks for themselves, because all of them are now on view at Good Merchandise — a shop located right across the street from Two Wall Gallery.

AnnaLisa LaFayette, who owns Good Merchandise, said she met with Monica Gripman shortly after Gripman was called to pick up her and Davila’s works from the Heron’s Nest, where they were taken by Louise Rice after she took them off the walls.

“Monica came in, and even before seeing the artwork, I said, ‘You’ve got a home here,’” LaFayette said.

LaFayette has now hung Davila and Gripman’s work on the walls and in the front window of her shop, along with a handwritten sign that proclaims that the work was censored at Two Wall Gallery.

The issue, meanwhile, is garnering press attention throughout the region. KOMO was on Vashon on Monday to interview some of the key players. Seattle’s alternative newspaper, The Stranger, has also weighed in on the controversy with a blog post titled “‘Homosexual Content’ Not Allowed on Vashon Island.” The issue also appears to be going viral, capturing attention on social networking sites including Facebook.

All the attention seems to be all right with LaFayette.

“We don’t have enough controversial art on Vashon that makes you think,” she said. “If it doesn’t make you think, what’s the point?”