When Justin Strong hung his cousin Chris Savido's paintings in East Liberty's Shadow Lounge, Strong always got a good reaction. "Bush Monkeys" -- a portrait of George W. formed from small monkeys and chimps clustered in a marsh -- hung in a Lounge window from September until November this year.
But when "Bush Monkeys" was placed in the block-long Chelsea Market in New York City on Dec. 9 as part of a 60-piece show, management of the upscale food market became so upset that they forced curator Bucky Turco to take everything down.
"I still don't know what the exact complaint or reason for wanting it down was about," says 23-year-old Savido, reached in his Upper East Side apartment. "This show was going to be a big step for me. I was hoping to meet a lot of the artists. I felt this was taken away from me."
Of course, what censorship takes away, publicity tends to return a thousand-fold.
"Whoever didn't want people to see the painting," says Savido, "now millions of people are going to see it worldwide."
Perhaps they already have, thanks to the Internet and international press extending as far as Australia and Al Jazeera, according to Turco.
The Chelsea art show was a release party for the latest issue of Animal magazine (www.animalnewyork.com), a showcase for emerging artists, which Turco co-founded and co-publishes. "It appears Chelsea Market received some threats from a Bush supporter who was really unhappy with the piece," says Turco. "Some guy was going to picket the show if we kept it up." Chelsea Market officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Turco removed the 18-by-24-inch acrylic "Bush Monkeys" and replaced it with a quote from George Washington: "If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."
"Funny enough," Turco says, "a Market guy came back and removed the quote. They said 'You can't stir up things.' It's a freaking quote from the first president of the U.S.!"
Turco told Chelsea management he intended to hang the piece back up for a private opening. When another Chelsea official spied it, Turco reports, the official instructed a security guard to shutter the show.
"The guy literally threw us out in the cold," Turco says.
In the hubbub over the art show cancellation, people worldwide discovered that Chris Savido's art had appeared in Pittsburgh, not only at the Shadow Lounge but at Mad Max Tattoos in Mount Oliver. The eponymous proprietor says he received half a dozen e-mails by Dec. 11: "I'm so glad justice was served," one said. "Maybe you should sell your stuff in Tehran," said another; a third criticized "you baloney-smoking artists who think you can do what you want."
"I was totally upset," says Max. "You can't express yourself. It ain't like [Bush] has got a dunce cap on him like most political cartoons do."
Turco has since written a contrite letter to Chelsea Market's founder, "begging" him to allow the show to return, while the Democratic co-chair of the New York Congressional Arts Caucus told Market managers in another letter: "Just as President Ronald Reagan once asked the Soviet Union to 'Tear Down This Wall,' to restore the freedoms of expression and assembly, we ask you now to 'Put Up That Art Show.' The First Amendment and our democracy deserve nothing less."
"You would think a place like New York wouldn't be as conservative" as Pittsburgh, muses Justin Strong of the Shadow Lounge. Strong has shown other paintings by his cousin with even stronger messages, such as one of the Statue of Liberty being lynched: She is visible only from the hips down, the torch limp in her hand, her book on the ground, a tree and cemetery in the background.
As for "Monkeys"' run in Pittsburgh: "Everybody loved it. They get real close and say, 'Oh, that's funny,'" says Strong, who has featured Savido's paintings for years in his Lounge and still has several on display and in storage. "He's pretty much been my house artist."
"Bush Monkeys," explains Savido, was painted "to show that we all have the same origins, basically. I wanted to send a message to Bush to tell him that we're all people. Being a born-again Christian ... [Bush] doesn't believe in evolution. I feel that some of the policies he was trying to implement in our society were divisive," not only in America but worldwide, he concludes.
Savido says he was "shocked" at the tempest surrounding his work. He has posted an artist's statement about the painting on his Web site, www.workmade.com. He and Turco are looking for another venue for the show and planning to auction "Bush Monkeys" -- most likely to benefit a group that protects free speech, possibly to buy body armor for a few of his friends in Iraq, and certainly to pay a few bills. Turco claims he's gotten an offer of $45,000 for it already.It was on sale in the Chelsea Market for $3,500.