Over the last few weeks, Jeff Owen has become something of an expert on Walt Disney's Aladdin. Walking into a meeting, he carries an oversized children's picture book that details the story that turned the Arabian Nights personality into a star of the American screen, and without much prompting he flips it open to a page that shows Aladdin watching the activity in a Middle Eastern market.
He points a finger at the text. "Look at that," he insists. "It says Aladdin, a poor, hungry young man. Man, not boy."
Owen turns more pages until he reaches the book's end. "And look at this," he says. "It reads that when Aladdin told the Sultan that he wished to marry Princess Jasmine, the Sultan was thrilled. Now, how thrilled do you think he would have been if Aladdin had been underage? Not very, I bet."
Owen delivers these pronouncements with an air of vindication. And in some ways, that's exactly what he's seeking. For while it might seem a little odd for a 37-year-old man to be obsessed with the exact age of an animated character, to Owen, an artist, a student at Houston Community College and a part-time hairstylist, the difference between whether Aladdin is a boy or a man is the difference between whether Owen himself is someone with an arch, if rather ribald, sense of humor or someone who, however unintentionally, promotes pedophilia.
Until April 18, that's not a distinction that Owen felt he needed to make. But on that day, a representative from the Design Industries Foundation Fighting Aids, one of Houston's largest AIDS charities, called him up and told him that an artwork he had created for a DIFFA fundraiser was being pulled. The reason? His piece, which included a Ken doll and an Aladdin doll perched together on Aladdin's flying carpet, was inappropriate for the DIFFA function. Aladdin, Owen says he was told, was too young to be hanging around with Ken in E well, in the way he was hanging around with Ken.
"They said he was underage, that he wasn't old enough to get into the clubs," Owen says now, sounding as much bewildered as upset. "And all I could think was, what are you talking about? They're dolls."
True, Ken and Aladdin are dolls. But as Owen has positioned them in the work he titled Foam Party, they're dolls with more than a little attitude. Though he at first describes his creation as totally innocent, just a pair of companions winging their way toward a better world, after a moment he admits that, okay, there is something a little naughty here. After all, his title came from a trendy event at some gay discos, where the dance floor is filled with industrial-strength foam before the crowd wades in to dance and, perhaps, rub together body parts obscured by the billows. And while both Ken and Aladdin are clothed -- Ken in a pair of sparkly shorts and Aladdin in his fez, vest and puffy pants -- Aladdin is also on all fours, with Ken leaning over him from behind in a very friendly manner.
Owen points out that Ken's crotch is pressed against the carpet rather than Aladdin's rear, and it is possible to see him as just along for the ride. But Owen also admits that when he had Foam Party sitting out at his home, friends would see it and laugh. "Some people said it looks like they're doing it, and that makes it funny," he says. "But when you get up close, you see they really aren't doing it, and that makes it even funnier."
The joke was not one he thought he needed to explain to DIFFA. The organization, which was started more than a decade ago by members of the New York fashion and design industry, has grown into one of the nation's best-known AIDS charities. The Houston chapter alone has, since 1987, distributed more than $2 million for HIV/AIDS care, research, treatment and preventive education. Much of that money has come from special auctions such as the one that Foam Party was originally intended for. The idea is to get 100 works from artists and celebrities created using a common theme, and then sell those pieces to the highest bidder. In the past, DIFFA has held fundraisers such as "InVESTments," in which vests were decorated and sold; the theme for this year's May 18 fundraiser is "Boxing Back," and the idea was to have artists create special boxes, from hope chests to CD carriers, that could be auctioned off.
Normally, an art student such as Owen wouldn't be asked to participate in such an event, but there were some unusual circumstances. David Krause, an artist who had contributed work to an earlier DIFFA auction, had been Owen's roommate, and when time came to prepare for "Boxing Back" he was sent an invitation to come up with something. Krause, though, had died of AIDS by the time his letter arrived, so Owen opened it instead. When he contacted DIFFA to let them know of Krause's death, he added a suggestion: why not let him do a box in Krause's stead? "I thought it was a touching idea," says DIFFA chapter director Tori Williams, "so I agreed. Looking back, I probably should have asked to see some examples of his work first."
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.
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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."
What was intended at the beginning as something of a joke has ended up, it seems, leaving nobody happy. Well, almost nobody. Last week, Foam Party sat on a desk in a DIFFA board member's office. It was draped in black plastic, but when the covering was pulled aside, and the piece revealed, it was clear that Ken and Aladdin, at least, were still all smiles.