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February 2005

Everything’s Fein

The Upfront Gallery presents controversial art

by MOLLY FREEDENBERG

One poster depicts George Bush as Jesus Christ on a cross, with a missile protruding from his loincloth and the shadows of two Abu Ghraib figures—Lyndie England, the young private who has become the public face of the American torturers, and the photographed hooded Iraqi with wires attached to his limbs, who has become the face of torture victims—dangling from his outstretched arms. Another poster is an American flag, with stripes made out of the text of the official Abu Ghraib reports and stars made out of the iconic hooded Iraqi.

No, these aren’t unusually complex protest signs. These are pieces of artwork that make up the Clinton Fein Uncovered exhibit, opening Feb. 12, from 6-9pm, at Upfront Gallery in Ventura.

And artist Clinton Fein isn’t sure how Ventura audiences are going to take his biting, satirical, in-your-face political exhibit, which also includes a grid made up of 5x7 photographs of maimed, injured or dead Iraqis with the words “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” scrawled across it.

But whatever kind of attention Clinton Fein Uncovered garners, Fein—who will attend the opening reception on Saturday—can handle it.

After all, the 40-year-old is no stranger to controversy over free speech issues, in general, or his artwork, in particular. The now-American citizen was born in South Africa, where “censorship was a very real and devastating thing,” he said, which is part of why he came to America 15 years ago. “Censorship and First Amendment issues were something meant to be the biggest promise of America.”

By the mid-90s, though, Fein found himself taking Attorney General Janet Reno to the Supreme Court over his right to disseminate his art. The legislation in question, the Communications Decency Act, made it a felony to transmit anything indecent with the intent to annoy someone—and apparently someone thought Fein’s inflammatory work fell into that category. Fein argued that what is “indecent” and “annoying” is subjective; in 1997, he won the case, which led to his creation of the highly controversial website www.annoy.com.

Meanwhile, Fein was producing and showing his art on the Internet and in prestigious galleries in major cities across the United States, including the Axis Gallery in New York City and the Toomey Tourell Gallery in San Francisco. Though he was rewarded with rave reviews and a number of awards, the controversy didn’t end there.

Immediately before Fein’s latest San Francisco show went up, the Palo Alto-based printing company he commissioned to print his artwork refused to hand over two of his prints. It turned out that the company, called Zazzle, had first printed and then destroyed two of the prints, deeming them inappropriate. He managed to find another printer to reproduce the two prints, called Like Apple Fucking Pie and Who Would Jesus Torture? (described above), but wasn’t able to maintain printing consistency with the other works in the exhibit.

Now, Fein is bringing those pieces, along with six others, to Ventura County. And in some ways, he says, showing these works in a smaller community is the true test of his work.

“Showing my work in big cities is not that big of a challenge, in terms of people being challenged by the material themselves,” he said, explaining that opening exhibitions to mostly liberal crowds in places like San Francisco can feel like preaching to the choir. “This is the first time I’m showing in a small city.”

Fein was introduced to Upfront Gallery, and to Ventura, when a representative of the gallery saw his work at an art fair called Scope in Los Angeles. When the gallery approached Fein to do a show, he figured, “Why not?” But he’s also surprised and impressed by the gallery’s willingness to take on such potentially difficult material.

“It’s a courageous thing for them to do—more so than a gallery in New York or San Francisco,” he said. “Which is why I’m doing it.”