Walking into the student gallery of the University of Cincinnati's DAAP building is an arresting experience. The re-created graffiti there is shocking and disturbing.
Sprayed onto the walls are 52 scribbles of hatred, re-creations of graffiti found throughout UC's campus. One phrase says it all: "Way to go Bill Cosby. All blacks should boycott Cincinnati. Please leave niggers."
Caroline Caldwell, Erin Heitsch, Brandon Hickle and Andre Hyland, a group of UC seniors, achieve what's best about contemporary art. Their installation of an empty classroom surrounded by three gallery walls covered with sexist, racist and homophobic graffiti ventures into an area not normally associated with high art. Everyday objects like a blackboard, classroom chairs and a desktop American flag are gathered in a purposeful manner.
As a result, they've created a work that best captures the post-post modern age.
They've taken something profane and re-created it in an artistic context that's considered sacred.
Over the installation's brief, five-day run, the artistic joined forces with the political, the social and the cultural. Reactions have been mixed. Conservative UC administrators and cultural critics have declared the installation "a work of hatred." Meanwhile, The Cincinnati Enquirer deemed the work newsworthy, putting the installation on its front page.
The piece's topical subject matter aside, it's significant for its stark beauty. What these four student artists have created is an artful observation of social problems.
Every marginalized group is bashed equally in the graffiti: women, gays and lesbians, African Americans. The re-created scribbles bring anger and fear to the surface. In a war of words and representations, Caldwell, Heitsch, Hickle and Hyland show these marginalized groups they don't need to be powerless anymore.
The force of the installation and its graffiti are balanced with the shift of power to the viewers, who bring something to the work. I found the installation to be beautiful and thoughtful. The UC janitor who discovered the work before its April 29 opening felt otherwise.
Some people would describe the installation as impolitical art. Others would say the artists have crossed the line of taste and created something transgressive. Basically, what makes the installation transgressive is that the students have re-created scribbles of hatred most people would prefer not to see.
On one level, the installation is threatening to the UC authorities who have allowed these epithets to remain on campus walls. More importantly, the piece is threatening to the bigots, sexists and racists who continue to create such graffiti.
Still, the students' values are clear. They want to create a dialogue about sexual and ethnic identities. They want people to see the "found" graffiti. They also want to provide insights about contemporary Cincinnati society and politics.
In the wake of the April 2001 riots and recent boycotts and protests, Caldwell, Heitsch, Hickle and Hyland have created the one piece of art that speaks directly to Cincinnati's racial strife.
A few days after the closing of their show, the four meet at a Clifton coffee bar to talk about the installation. There's passion in their voices.
"I learned something from the piece," says Hickle, 22. "I learned that if you feel strongly about something, you have to move forward with it."
The four artists agree that they'd like to continue working as a group, a makeshift Art Club 2002. Personally, I can't wait to see what they do next.
This installation wasn't regulated or censored by UC authorities. With that in mind, it's become one of the few bright spots in what has been a dismal year for Cincinnati artists.
In DAAP's student gallery, the separation between high and low art comes alive. The gap between elite art forms and popular subject matter is recognized. And we witness promising student artists move a step closer to the confidence of a veteran.
Caldwell, Heitsch, Hickle and Hyland set out to push boundaries with their senior installation project. What's remarkable is they achieved their goal.
As a bonus, the artwork has helped Cincinnati change a little for the better.