If art never challenged us, never bothered us, never offended us, never got under our skin, maybe we would be more comfortable.

But it wouldn't be art.

And we would be lesser people for the loss. 

These thoughts come to mind in the wake of a brouhaha over an exhibit at an art gallery at Linn-Benton Community College's Albany campus. As reported by the Democrat-Herald's Neil Zawicki, the controversy revolves around an exhibit by Eugene fiber artist Andrew Douglas Campbell.

Or, more precisely, the controversy involves three of the works in the 10-piece show. The three in question depict men performing sex acts. Two of them struck me as graphic.

The images, which resemble line drawings, are in fact created using thread that is pressed between sheets of clear Plexiglas. The skill required to create these pieces is remarkable, and even an Albany resident who was critical of the show conceded that Campbell was a skilled artist.

But the resident argued that the exhibit was "totally out of line" and that LBCC had "no business displaying those pictures."

That critic went to suggest that LBCC President Greg Hamann should be disciplined for allowing the exhibit to be shown in LBCC's North Santiam Galleries. But, of course, it's not as if Hamann himself commissioned or even selected the work: The exhibit was chosen by a jury that decides what shows will be presented in LBCC's galleries. (Imagine the fuss that would have broken out had Hamann overruled the jury.)

Sin Melendez, LBCC's student art curator, was a member of the jury that selected the show. She agreed that the images are graphic, but defended them: "The images are glaring and staring you in the face, but that's a good thing."

I don't think the argument here is over Campbell's right to make these images; that's undisputed. The question is whether they're appropriate to be seen in a public setting like LBCC. That's a little trickier. 

But where else would we have a chance to see work like this? It's not the kind of work that you're likely to see in a commercial gallery. LBCC has posted signs warning of the show's sexual content at the doorway to the gallery, so it's not as if people are stumbling into it unawares. 

And here's something that's easy to forget in these overheated times: Institutions of higher education exist in part to challenge us, to make us uncomfortable. That's part of what Hamann is driving at when he argues that events like the show help to create learning opportunities.

So I'll be honest: Two of the images made me uncomfortable. But that's just the starting point to start to ask questions of myself: Why? Would I have felt that discomfort if the images were of a heterosexual couple? What if the image showed an act of violence? 

Artwork has the ability to pose those kinds of tough questions in ways that we might not be expecting, to offer surprising insights into ourselves and the world around us.

Even facing those questions can be difficult, challenging work, so I'm completely sympathetic to anyone who doesn't feel up to it at any particular moment. In that case, there is an option: Heed the warning sign and don't go in.

Sculpture in the Wild

Speaking of art: I was in Montana last week, visiting friends and family, and had a chance to take another visit to "Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild," the sculpture garden that improbably has taken shape in the woods just east of Lincoln. (It's a must-see if you're ever in that area.)

In particular, I wanted to see how "Hill and Valley," the 2014 Steven Siegel sculpture that's made from 30,000 pounds of newspapers, 28 pine lodge pines and 400 pounds of nails, had fared during a couple of brutal winters. (A photo of the sculpture is included with the online version of this column.)

I was pleased to see that it's holding up quite well. Those newspapers are surprisingly durable, although the 400 pounds of nails undoubtedly help.

I also was delighted to see that new works had sprung up since I had last visited the site, including a very impressive work by the United Kingdom's Chris Drury, "Ponderosa Whirlpool," which arrays ponderosa logs into a massive vortex shape that appears to drain into a hole in the ground. But look again. 

As always, this thought occurred to me: A sculpture garden like this could work in any location that has forests and talented artists willing to think big. Can you think of any place like that? (mm)

Mike McInally is editor of the Gazette-Times and Democrat-Herald. Contact him at mike.mcinally@lee.net.

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