Sex and Death on the Restroom Wall
A creative doctor wanted to employ art to educate people about protecting themselves with condoms. A museum wanted to promote the doctor's vision, and a coffeehouse owner wanted some provocative work on his bathroom walls. A mother wanted to protect her ten-year-old child and others from exposure to unsuitable images, and the ten-year-old just wanted to pee. A vice squad cop, meanwhile, tried only to keep the peace. Sometimes, when good intentions pile up like that, you can't win for losing.
Eric Avery is the doctor/artist, a 48-year-old assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and associate member of UTMB's Institute for Medical Humanities. He works with late-stage AIDS patients. "For me," he says, "my art-making is a form of medicine and healing."
In the relevant instance, Avery's art-making took the form of wallpaper gridded into toilet paper sheet-sized squares, each containing an enlarged reproduction of instructions Xeroxed from condom package inserts. The piece is titled "How to Use a Male and Female Condom (Toilet Paper Motif)," and it was displayed, in conjunction with the AIDS awareness-oriented international "Day Without Art," in the Contemporary Arts Museum's downstairs gallery as part of CAM's "Wallpaper Works" show from mid-November through early January.
CAM also solicited several bars and clubs around the city to display Avery's instructional artwork, and in November, the museum installed the wallpaper in bathrooms at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, Rich's, the Blue Iguana, Fitzgerald's and Brasil.
The art's intent, says Susan Schmaeling, the publicist for CAM, is "to educate young adults about the need, if they are sexually active, to use male and female condoms and protect themselves from not only AIDS but from STDs. The illustrations were clinical -- they were medical illustrations clearly designed to show how to put on these condoms. What seems obvious is not always used by groups that are at risk, and we really wanted to reach young adults."
But on Sunday, February 25, the work reached someone too young to qualify for adulthood. That's when a Westheimer shopper and her daughter ducked into Brasil for the little girl's bathroom break, and when the little girl came back out, she had some questions for mommy. The mother, who spoke with the Press but declined to be identified by name, went into the bathroom to see, and didn't like what she saw.
"You don't understand how upset my daughter and myself were when we walked into this bathroom, and there's one picture in particular that really bothered me. It's the one where the legs were spread and the penis was coming toward the vagina. I mean, this is a ten-year-old little girl. And I realize that the '90s is the sex age, it's the disease age, and it's this age and it's that age, but I will protect my child as best I can, and hopefully any other children that are that age."
It's not particularly ironic to note that protection was also Avery's stated intention in creating the wallpaper.
On Monday, the upset complainant phoned the Houston Police Department's vice squad to report her distress, and then she called Brasil and spoke with Dan Ferguson, who owns the coffeehouse-cum-art gallery.
"I apologized and let her know that I wasn't intending to offend anyone," Ferguson says, "that it was part of the museum exhibit, and it was informative, and there's also the plaque that's up inside the bathroom [identifying the artist, the work and its intentions] and I asked her if there was anything I could do to make her happy, to remedy it, and that's when she asked if I would put up a sign that forewarned bathroom patrons that they would be possibly shocked by obscene material. So I told her I would do that, and then an hour later the police showed up."
Officer S.R. Andrews and two other plainclothes vice officers arrived at Brasil and began taking photographs of the offending men's and women's bathroom walls before identifying themselves to Ferguson.
"It's not something that I would want to put on the side of my building," Ferguson admits, "but I feel that it was part of a legitimate exhibit and it was informative in a lot of ways. I asked [the police] if they photographed the plaques, and they said no, they just photographed the offending material. They explained the Penal Code and said that I could take it down or I could talk to my lawyer and find out what I wanted to do, but they needed to hear from me the next day."
Ferguson, who recently received a license to add beer and wine to his coffee shop menu, didn't relish the idea of undue police attention, and decided to cover the offending wallpaper with sheets of butcher paper, which he did on Tuesday, the day after the complaint was lodged to the vice squad. CAM has offered to de-install the exhibit.
"I talked to the officer [Tuesday] afternoon, I called him up and I told him I covered it up, and he was like, 'Great, we didn't really want to do anything on this, but we just had to respond to it.' He said he was going to call this woman and ask if she was satisfied, and I'm hoping she is, because as it stands, maybe she's on a roll, just wants to punish me. She had mentioned she had talked to her attorney."
The woman was satisfied.
Dr. Eric Avery is not.
"This is one person objecting, and the comments that I've had have mostly been from women who say 'I didn't know that the female condom was available,' so I suspect that the ten-year-old girl knows what a condom is, but she'd never seen a female condom before, and so she went and said to her mother, 'What is that?' I would suspect the mother had also not ever seen a female condom before, and probably was educated in the process of objecting to what is designed as an educational project to save lives."
It's perhaps worth noting here that the panel singled out by the complainant as especially offensive does indeed illustrate the use of a female condom.
"If I'm going to make a statement for you to quote," Avery continues, "it would be that with 18,000 women with AIDS in the United States and 38 percent of them in the South, the woman who complained was confusing education with pornography. I would add one more thing, which is: condom censorship equals death. If you can't even educate about using condoms, what can you do? From my side and from the museum's side, the community pieces have been a success, because they did educate."
Avery is serious, but not precious, about his art. When the idea of placing a warning sign outside of the bathroom is raised, he embraces it.
"Certainly, if you could put a sign on the door that would warn people when they go in, that, to me, would make the piece even more interesting. I don't want [Ferguson] to be put in a place where he's being asked to do things that he's not comfortable doing. He's running a business. But of course, I would like for Dan to challenge the vice squad to explain why this is obscene."
Officer Andrews knows that's not his job.
"Our deal in this thing," he explains, "is we're kinda caught in the middle of it. I've got a complainant with a ten-year-old on one side that wants something done about it; I've got another individual on the other side, Mr. Ferguson, who's trying to do a public service. It's not for me to decide who's right or wrong. It just depends on how far each side wants to take this."
Andrews did present Ferguson with a piece of paper carrying a description of the Texas Penal Code 43.24, which pertains to the "sale, distribution or display of harmful material to a minor." He also says he advised Ferguson that if charges were brought, they would probably fall within the province of section 43.24. Never mind that provision (c1) of the applicable section states, "It is a defense to prosecution under this section that: the sale, distribution or exhibition was by a person having scientific, educational, governmental or other similar justification ...."
In any case, it didn't sound like the kind of trouble Ferguson wanted much to do with, so he chose to cover the walls with semi-translucent butcher paper. You can still discern the graphics if you try, but you do have to try. The same graphics, or at least their naturally tattered remains, are still on unobstructed display in bathrooms at Rich's, the Blue Iguana, Fitzgerald's and the Satellite, whose clienteles' 18-and-up age presumably exempt their victimization. The same graphics also remain available to any minor with $3.50 and a ride to Walgreen's for a box of condoms, which must constitute, if not the direct "display," then certainly its "sale" as cited in the Penal Code. The artwork's equivalents in titillation, of course, remain available to any child with a library card and the curiosity to consult an encyclopedia.
So what's the problem? Why doesn't Ferguson just put a sign outside the bathroom door alerting potential visitors to the room's graphic content? Hasn't everyone said that would be an acceptable solution for all parties? Well, not to each other. Ferguson doesn't think he's in a position to stick his neck out, officer Andrews is under no obligation to suggest a change to a legal status quo, CAM is ready to take the work down and the woman who complained says, "I will speak with officer Andrews about our conversation and talk to him about a sign being put up. I don't know what my decision on that would be at this point." Avery, meanwhile, is sitting back and watching as his art attracts the attention it needs to serve its educational function. He's also got a hint of what it all means.
"It's going to the lowest denominator of one, and responding to that complaint. That's the chilled atmosphere that people are living in, and I think that's a problem E. I honestly think that because this has happened, more people are going to want to go to see it.
"I said at the CAM, if a ten-year-old girl comes in and sees this and knows that she can put a condom in herself, we are stopping the transmission, potentially, of the virus to that individual, and that is worth fighting for."
Well, maybe so. But so far nobody's fighting for the information. They're just covering it up.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.