Teachers' group removes professor's suggestive art by Monique Beeler

Staff Writer Oakland Tribune also published in the Fremont Argus
Friday April 23, 2004

Hat in hand, the man in a suit and tie stand next to a pile of what appear to be library books, but his gaze isn't fixed on anything academic.  What catches his eye is the blonde seated behind the desk in a provocative pose that reveals her black garters and well-toned legs.

Reference Desk oil on canvas 48"x60"

To the artist, Kenney Mencher, an associate professor of art and art history at Ohlone College in Fremont, the painting presents an uncertain scenario each viewer is invited to interpret individually.

To employees at a state building in Sacramento, it was artwork that made them uneasy and didn't belong near their work space.

Along with work by two other artists, Mencher's paintings went on display April 9 in an informal exhibition of teachers' artwork at the California State Teachers' Retirement System offices.  One work day later on April 12, four of Mencher's paintings were removed after several employees complained.

"Some of them are rather risqué,"  says Kirsten Macintyre, a spokeswoman for CalSTRS.  "There's one of a woman sitting at a desk with her skirt hiked up and her garter showing, and there's a man staring at her.  It's suggestive and it's not appropriate for a state workplace."

The department policy prohibits the ". . . displaying of sexually suggestive objects or pictures, cartoons or posters."

Mencher says he doesn't disagree about the removal of this painting, called "Reference Desk." or another canvas called "Macys" in which two women face each other through a doorway.  One is seen from behind in a camisole-style top, while the second, wearing a bra, turns toward her.

Macys, oil on canvas 36" x 36"

But Mencher, 39, a Palo Alto resident, says he's mystified about the removal of two other paintings, one of two boys playing with water shooting from an uncapped fire hydrant and a scene of a svelte young woman in a sleeveless dress and heels standing beside the passenger door of a car.

Another Roadside Attraction
oil on canvas 24x30"

Hydrant, oil on canvas 48"x60" 

Mencher says he strives to depict subjects with ambiguous meanings, something like an artistic Rorschach test in which the viewer examines ink splotches to decipher underlying significance.

"My feeling is if women feel uncomfortable with (these paintings), they're definitely bringing their own baggage to it," Mencher says.

Painting in a realist tradition reminiscent of illustration work of the 1950s, Mencher says he often gleans inspiration from the era's films and magazines.

And while he says his work is popular with many viewers and has sold well in recent years, this isn't the first time his choice of subject has sparked controversy.  His three-year relationship with HANG Art gallery in San Francisco came to an end in November over similar issues.

"His work started to go in a direction that didn't feel like a match for the gallery,"  HANG Art Director Michelle Townsend says.  "It was clear he wanted to take his work beyond what the staff was comfortable with."

Townsend calls the parting with Mencher amicable.  Representing an artist and his work well, she says, calls for enthusiasm from gallery staff members, something that had diminished among HANG Art employees, most of whom are women.

There is a frankness to Mencher's work that Townsend calls unabashed.

"There's a cheesy side to all of our fantasies that Kenney is interested in, and as consequence, some of (his paintings) are funny and overt," she says.

Personally, Townsend says, she supports Mencher's artistic drive and encourages him to "go crazy in whatever direction he wants to go."  But if she had been the curator of the Sacramento exhibition, she would have been more conservative in choosing which of Mencher's paintings to show.

There are several ways a curator could approach such situation, says Mitchell Schwarzer, chair of visual studies at California College of the Arts.

"What often happens in museums or galleries, they'll put a warning (in the) wall text: 'The work has adult content that is sexual or violent,' "Schwarzer says.

Viewers should be forewarned, he says, when they're about to encounter challenging artwork.

"It's very much like when you go to the movies,"  Schwarzer says.  "The rating system is letting people know that they're getting into."

"Noone should be forced to view potentially offensive art in their place of employment, but neither should art be banished from the work place altogether," he says.  Where space allows, Schwarzer suggests placing controversial pieces in a separate room accompanied by a warning label.

It's a tactic, that would allow the public to choose whether to view the art, while remaining respectful toward the artist and his work.

Whenever art is incorporated into public spaces, controversy is bound to follow, particularly as viewers become more vocal about what they will and won't tolerate, Schwarzer says.

"By and large, controversy is good for the artist."  he says.  "The work enters into a public discourse and (creates) publicity for the artist."

That's already proven true for Mencher, who has received inquiries from several galleries interested in displaying his paintings.  He has no intention of taming his future work.

"It made me feel good that people had such strong reactions to it,"  Mencher says.  "Maybe I've got my finger on something that ought to be scratched."

You can e-mail Monique Beeler at mbeeler@angnewspapers.com or call (925) 416-4860
published on the web at