‘Distressing’ exhibit removed from OC
An art exhibition is causing debate among students and staff at Okanagan College’s Vernon campus.
Located just past the campus lecture theatre in the college’s main building, the exhibition, featuring paintings by Vernon artist Ryan Robson, is part of an ongoing joint venture between Gallery Vertigo and Okanagan College, which features revolving monthly exhibitions.
Robson says she was told that her work would be displayed until the end of the month, however, on Tuesday, she was informed by Gallery Vertigo that her work must be removed from the college by Jan. 17 as it was causing some distress to students and staff.
“I put the work up on Jan. 6 and the dean (Jane Lister) called the gallery two days ago and said the work was disturbing to both professors and the students who had complained,” said Ryan, when talking to The Morning Star Thursday. “She said it was triggering things in people.”
Ryan, who is a studio artist at Vertigo and also a program director at Teen Junction, has shown her work at the Caetani Cultural Centre and The Hub Arts Collective in Vernon. She says her exhibition stems from her graduation show from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
The exhibition features eight medium-sized unstretched canvases painted in black and white, some with red streaks. The subject matter varies from skeletal remains to faceless, semi-clothed females in various poses. One canvas reads “Exploitation Exploration.”
The show is sexually-based, but is metaphorical as it does not show any explicit imagery or nudity, said Robson.
“I wanted the work to speak for itself. I was later going to flip the work and give my bio and why the work was created. Now I won’t have the opportunity to do that,” said Robson, adding, “My grad show stems from me being sexually abused as a child. My process is intuitive. I’m not sure what I’m going to do until I start.”
Lister says she was the one who contacted the gallery after receiving an e-mail a few hours after the exhibition went up. She has since received numerous complaints by members of staff and students who say they find the work “distressing.”
“We value art that creates discussion, but at the same time employees and students need to feel comfortable and the fact the art has been causing distress is the reason we came up with a compromise,” she said. “We let the work be shown for two weeks so everyone could see it. We wanted to create balance and respect for the art and artists and students and staff.”
Lister says she has offered a separate room in the college for Robson to show her work, and will provide a sign to the location.
“People then have the choice to go in the room or not,” said Lister, adding one of the main reasons the college came up with a compromise to move the show is that the current display is located in an open hallway.
“It is located across from the student success support room, as well as the counselling office and classrooms,” she said.“This is different from a public art gallery where you can stay and see the art and leave. Some of our students and staff have to go down that hallway. They have no choice. That’s our concern, and we want to be respectful of our employees.”
Robson says the college is missing the point.
“It’s less public (placing the work in a separate room),” she said, adding she has already brought youth from Teen Junction (a youth centre for those 13 to 18 years) to see the show and also take a tour of the college.
“We try to engage students to speak through their work, meanwhile the college is saying the process of mine is not proper. It goes against what I have been teaching youth,” she said. “You can’t expect kids who have been abused to keep it bottled inside, they need to spit out what’s inside them to release them.”
Robson is also upset that the college did not contact her directly about the controversy, as she left her business cards as well and an open comment box in front of her display for people to write their thoughts. She says the comment box was removed from her exhibition on the day she was told the work needed to be removed, but then it was returned later with all the comments intact.
“I contacted the gallery as I have never dealt with the artists. They are the one that have the agreement with the artists. My partner is the gallery,” said Lister. “The comments were physically removed when I received a call from a board member. I looked at the comments then put them back. There were different opinions in there, and they were open for everyone to read them.”
Although a public institution, the college does have a policy in place for those wishing to display information, such as posters.
“It needs to get stamped before it is approved,” she said.
However, the college and its board did not see Robson’s work before it went on display, added Lister.
“We’ve had a very informal relationship (with Gallery Vertigo)... Since this has come up, we will talk to the gallery and get something in place. We don’t want to diminish art coming in and we’re glad the exhibition was up for a couple of weeks,” she said. “We value art and the opportunity that art creates for us to have those discussions.”