By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
If she had, it probably wouldn't have changed anything. When he proposed creating a box for DIFFA's fundraiser, Owen had little experience with sculpture. He had mainly painted, focusing on somewhat surrealistic dreamscapes. That was his original idea as well for decorating the box DIFFA gave him as raw material: paint rainbows and stars on it, throw in some ghostly figures, and suggest an afterlife where people are at peace. Then fill the drawers in the box with items symbolizing the problems left behind on Earth.
But when he gessoed the box in preparation for the paint, it warped, making the drawers impossible to open. So he cast about for another idea. Walking through Michael's, an art supply store, Owen stumbled upon a selection of white Styrofoam balls, and was struck with the notion of using them to manufacture a miniature foam party, with doll parts poking out here and there to suggest immersed dancers. Only Michael's didn't have dolls, necessitating a trip to Toys R Us and another propitious find: Ken in spangled short pants. "I thought I could put two Kens and maybe some Barbies in the foam," says Owen, "but then I thought, no, I'll make it like a party at Rich's, a gay disco, and just put men in there." Only as he wandered about with two Kens in hand, his eyes fell on Aladdin crouched on his flying carpet. Owen liked the doll, but not the positioning, and it was only after he failed to find a standing Aladdin that he thought he might as well give the kneeling one a try.
"Then I thought, you know, he's flying, and the picture on the box shows him flying above the clouds, and it occurred to me he could be flying atop the foam party as well," says Owen. "Then I wondered if I could bend Ken's legs so he'd fit on the back of Aladdin, so they could both be flying on the carpet." When he took them home and out of their boxes, they fit like a glove. "And I thought, that's funny. That's funny seeing the two of them together, because you wouldn't expect that."
So he positioned them atop the foam balls he'd glued to his DIFFA box, and stood back for a look. Not bad, he thought. Not bad at all.
On Tuesday, April 23, five days after Jeff Owen learned his Foam Party didn't meet with DIFFA's approval, DIFFA held a small party of its own. In the Hermes of Paris store in the Pavilion on Post Oak, socialites, artists and assorted habitues of the disease ball circuit wandered among some 35 of the 100 plus decorated boxes that will make up the offerings at "Boxing Back." Looking at those boxes now, in their elegant display in Hermes' austere space, it's hard to imagine exactly how Owen's piece would have fit in. Most of the boxes carry the air of, if not exactly high art, at least high-toned art: a mailbox covered with silver quilting, a jewel box encrusted with jewels, a tiny boxing ring made out of canvas and rope, a hope chest painted in muted shades. Next to these, Foam Party would sound out like a shouted request for "Freebird" at a symphony concert -- funny, though not necessarily judged so by the people in the expensive seats.
According to Owen, when he dropped Foam Party off at DIFFA's offices on April 2, he got only a warm response. DIFFA's Tori Williams agrees that when Foam Party arrived it stirred little concern. But as it sat in the DIFFA offices, she says, people walking by started to raise an eyebrow. The issue, she says, was not that Ken and Aladdin appeared chummier than Mattel or Disney would care for people to imagine, but Aladdin's age. Though she's clear that she, and others at DIFFA, are certain that Owen's intent was harmless, she's also clear that "we don't feel that DIFFA can support a piece of art that is so suggestive of E." Her voice trails off. "You know, when they're not two consenting adults, and so forth," she finishes. The concern, Williams adds, was that attention might be turned away from DIFFA's purpose of raising money for AIDS and toward the issue of underage sex. One DIFFA board member, she says, looked at Foam Party and remarked that he'd planned to bring his mother to "Boxing Back," but couldn't do so if Owen's piece was on display.
In the week and a half after DIFFA told Owen it had judged Foam Party to be inappropriate, things became a bit unpleasant. Williams says she'd hoped that Owen would understand DIFFA's concern, and that would be that. But Owen, upset that anyone could read even a hint of pedophilia into his work, decided to go public with the dispute. DIFFA, in turn, decided that rather than give Foam Party back to Owen -- as Williams had originally offered -- it would keep the piece, sell it privately and add the money to the fundraiser's coffers.
Owen now wonders if it wasn't the fact that he had two male dolls in a sexual situation that was the problem, not Aladdin's age. A DIFFA spokesman dismisses out of hand the idea that the group, which has many gay members, might be leery of homosexual images. And both sides have been trading letters, talk of legal action and general recriminations. One DIFFA board member, Owen says, talked to him about 45 minutes before ending on the note that "you're making DIFFA the victim. Any publicity from this will only hurt the organization." Owen shakes his head. "DIFFA the victim? I'm the victim."