Accepted into another art festival even before Art-A-Fair had officially ended, the Escondido-based painter shipped out his Laguna inventory and restocked the emptied booth with three large paintings depicting buff men in full frontal nudity. He put those canvasses up on a Tuesday night. They were removed the next day, apparently under the direction and consent of Art-a-Fair’s board.
Ferguson claims his works are unfairly being censored while Art-a-Fair administrators say the works crossed a line.
After initially contacting board member Edith Dworak, Ferguson received permission to hang the work, but received a warning that the paintings may not be permitted to remain. “She gave me no reason for the warning so I assumed it must be the penises that are offensive. The public does not like to see genitalia,” said Ferguson.
The warning prompted Ferguson to cover the offending anatomical parts with black circles bearing the legend “censored.” “Even though I assumed that the board and other people would have problems with them being full frontal, male nudes, I wanted to display them because they are good paintings,” he said.
Ferguson said he was unaware if Art-a-Fair policies addressed nudity, but cited paintings and photographs by another exhibitor, Robert Ross, whose work also depicted nudity that had not drawn any sanctions.
“I was upset that Ross could sell female nudes all summer but that there is an apparent bias against male nudes,” he said.
Art-a-Fair President Michael Cahill emphasized that frontal nudity on any gender is forbidden but that tastefully presented partial nudity, as part of a pictorial narrative, was acceptable. He declined further comment except to say that Ross’s works did not depict full nudity. He described Ferguson’s action as a stunt.
“We are an art show, not a statement show,” Cahill said. The festival’s 125 artists are admitted by jury.
Ferguson, who was juried in based on his landscapes and representational work, feels puritanism fueled the board’s action. “As an artist I feel persecuted and violated,” he said, describing his work as exercising his freedom of speech and expression. Ferguson says his work attracts a following among gay collectors.
Ross, for his part, agreed that his own paintings and photographs contain female and male nudity but as part of a pictorial context. “In painting as well as in film I prefer nudity to be part of the story and not an end in itself,” he said.
Ross said he never saw the paintings in question. Nor was he aware if Art-A-Fair administrators previously censored other artists. “The board has a right to decide what is suitable for display; they have to draw a line when it comes to possibly annoying or offending visitors and other artists,” he said.
Despite taking offense at the removal of his works, Ferguson expects to return to Laguna Beach next year and show conservatively themed landscapes and figurative work. “Art-A-Fair is a democratic organization. You have to be voted out by the membership, and we get automatically juried in every year,” he said.
“I am still trying to understand the culture of Laguna,” he added.