|His art's too racy for walls at CalSTRS
By David Barton -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Friday, April 16, 2004
Kenney Mencher swears he didn't mean to offend. But apparently,
he couldn't help it.
"Honestly, I didn't think these paintings were going
to upset anyone," he says now.
But Monday afternoon, after complaints from employees,
four of Mencher's paintings were removed from the walls of the lobby of
the California State Teachers' Retirement System office on Folsom Boulevard.
That was just one business day after they were hung last Friday.
CalSTRS spokeswoman Kirsten Macintyre said in a statement:
"We have a zero-tolerance policy for harassment in the workplace; if the
art is making our employees uncomfortable, we're not going to keep it up."
Six of Mencher's paintings remain up on the lobby's
walls. The other four have been returned to him. (To see the four paintings,
and others by Mencher, visit www.kenney-mencher.com.)
Speaking through spokeswoman Macintyre, six female
employees of CalSTRS said they didn't object so much to the art itself,
as to its place in a work environment.
Says Macintyre, "They didn't like the objectification
of women, in particular the gaze of the men in the pictures. It's difficult
to be a woman in a modern workplace and then step out of your office and
see (a painting of) a woman showing her garters off to some guy."
The four paintings, which Sacramento art consultant
David Vargo (who declined to be quoted) brought to CalSTRS, feature men
and women in various moments that suggest an ongoing story - a story open
to interpretation. But the sexual subtext in the pictures is palpable.
Mencher, who lives in Palo Alto and is an associate
professor of art and art history at Ohlone College in Fremont, says he
finds the episode more amusing than frustrating.
Speaking by phone from Fremont, Mencher compares
his paintings to Rorschach tests, the famous inkblots that psychologists
have long used to probe the unconscious of patients.
As an example, he chooses "Another Roadside Attraction,"
one of the four paintings to which CalSTRS employees objected. In it, a
woman in a simple black shift prepares to step into a waiting car. Who
she is, who else is in the car and where they're going are left unsaid.
This, says Mencher, is where it gets interesting.
"A student said to me, in regards to that painting,
'What's with you and prostitutes, Professor Mencher?' To which I said,
'Well, what's with you and prostitutes?' And he said, 'It's a woman by
a car in the road,' and I said, 'Well, yeah, so?'
"So we started talking about context, about what
the viewer brings to the work," he explains. "I didn't see the woman as
a prostitute when I painted it. And a lot of the students said it was just
a woman looking for her keys. But a lot of the male students brought a
very sexual context to the painting."
Other paintings, notably "Reference Desk," one of
the four removed works (and the one in which the woman is flashing her
stockings), are far less ambiguous.
This is not the first time that Mencher has faced
objections to his art. He had been showing at Hang Gallery in San Francisco,
but had a falling-out with the gallery when female staffers had trouble
representing the art.
Michelle Townsend is director of Hang Gallery and
counts herself one of Mencher's admirers. In fact, she says, she has encouraged
him to pursue what she calls his "perverted" direction, lauding it for
the way his work "puts into sharp relief the cheesy stuff of our fantasies
and goes with it."
But not in her gallery.
"In our case, it didn't really fit with what we
carry," she says. "We're all women here, and the women involved in sales
didn't feel comfortable showing the work to people, and they need to believe
in the art they're representing."
For Mencher's part, this all underlines his larger
point, as an art history professor, about art's place in the world.
"It's about context and interpretation," he says.
"You bring your own interpretation when you look at paintings; you can
read these things different ways.
"It's the death of the author," he says. "It's Roland
Barthes' idea that once a work of art is released to the world, it becomes
its own entity, and people create their own meaning for it.
"From what I've seen, he was definitely right."