Hang Ups – Eric Burkhart

Every year at the Cuyahoga Community College Eastern Campus Art Gallery there is a student art show.  The items in the show are chosen by an independent juror from outside the school.  This year, an independent juror from Cleveland Institute of Art evaluated all submissions, and determined which ones would be displayed in the art show.  All five of the pieces I entered were accepted.  One of these was an abstract installation depicting death.  Four students complained to the gallery director because they saw in my installation a portrayal of African-Americans being lynched.  That evening the director of the college gallery informed me that if I did not write an artist statement explaining exactly what my installation was portraying, it would be removed from the show.  

My original statement was honest: 

I intentionally left the images vague to leave the interpretation up to the viewer.  I was focused mainly on the use of space; I wanted to occupy the area from the ceiling to the ground.  I began molding the lath into shapes that were visually appealing, added the plaster for texture and weight, and hung the sculptures to fully utilize the space.  I am pleased by the contradictory feelings of openness, fluidity, solidity and stillness that resulted.  I hope that my piece is intriguing and stimulates conversation.

This was not an acceptable statement so I tried another approach:

The idea for my installation was born as I walked into the empty gallery.  Surrounded by the bare white walls, I felt as if I was in a lifeless void.  To embody this feeling, I chose plaster and lath. The plaster was fast curing and adhered to the metal lath in such a way as to create a sense of white emptiness. However, I also needed to demonstrate the paradoxical sensation of heaviness that comes with vast nothingness. The addition of the noose gave the forms weight as well as evoked images of death, which I hope makes the viewer both intrigued and repulsed.

I was told again that this was not good enough and that I needed to explicitly state that my depiction was of an execution or anything else but a lynching.  However, before I was able to make these changes the Associate Dean of Liberal Arts was shown my installation and he made the executive decision to withdraw it from the show; this was done without my involvement or knowledge.  After the coercive, manipulative behavior of the gallery director and the reckless, unthoughtful actions of the dean, I decided to remove all of my art from the show.  A few days later, one of my previous art instructors, Terry Durst, who was aware of the situation, contacted me with an offer to introduce me to a gallery owner.  And here I am with all five pieces.   

My installation, which depicts images hanging from nooses, now tells my story of being censored and silenced.  It has become an allegory for the persecution of art, freedom of expression and  perhaps African-Americans or any oppressed people.  

Hang Ups

Eric Burkhart