The NEA Four

Here’s my third Staff Pick essay written for the Torrance Art Museum:


Government funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has experienced controversy since its creation in 1965, and the recent allocation of $75 million to the NEA placed in the Covid-19 relief package once again stirred up some animosity toward the program. As both an artist and art-lover, I appreciate the recognition of the arts for federal relief during this time of crisis, yet find it still not enough. After all, the arts in general contributed $877 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017 with over 5 million people employed within the arts and culture sector earning $405 billion. The war operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq have created $6.4 trillion of financial obligations/debt. So is $75 million dollars in crisis aid to fund the arts really worth raising a fuss over? Putting aside the immeasurable cultural value and the numerous scientific studies that show how important the arts are for mental development, those financial figures alone should satisfy opposition to a proportionately small amount of money compared to what the arts delivers to the economy. Unfortunately it does not.

The ongoing battle over funding the arts in this country reminds me of the infamous NEA Four case in the early 90’s. The NEA Four is the group name given to four performance artists (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller) who were originally granted NEA awards only to have them revoked by congressman and NEA Chair John E. Frohnmeyer after congress (spearheaded by Jesse Helms) passed a “decency clause” as criteria for the government to judge works. The four artists sued the government for wrongly turning down their grants. While the artists won their case in district court, it ultimately worked its way to the Supreme Court in 1998, which ruled that the government’s decency clause does not interfere with artist’s first amendment rights. The NEA had already had its funding severely cut by Congress, but after the court decision they did away with funding to individual artists altogether.

Karen Finley
Karen Finley

Sadly the biggest victims of all in the ongoing battle against NEA funding and the so-called “Culture Wars”, are not artists like those of the NEA Four, but the citizens of the United States who live in small, rural communities in great need of funding and access to the arts in general.

As a rural teenager at the time, I was slightly aware of the significance of the controversy as it made national news. Impressions formed in my mind by the events profoundly affected my own appreciation (or lack of appreciation in some cases) towards performance art – in my mind, and perhaps many others,  it would be permanently connected with “indecent”. The NEA Four situation came shortly after other enormously public controversies surrounding the NEA funding of money; $35K towards an exhibition which included the homoerotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and another $10K award to visual artist Andres Serrano who made Piss Christ (a photo of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine). Going to battle over a small amount of tax payer money being used towards such indecent works of art made for a good distraction from money spent on wars (an estimated $61 Billion for 1990’s Gulf War).

John Fleck
John Fleck

So just what was deemed indecent about the NEA Four? For the sake of brevity I shall limit my description of each performances to one sentence, which is rather like showing a one inch square section of 6’ X 8’ canvas painting. Karen Finley created a performance called “We Keep Our Victims Ready”, which involved stripping to the waist and describing sexual assault while smearing chocolate on her body ending with a poem about social isolation and the AIDS crisis. John Fleck’s work “Blessed are the Little Fishes” dealt with concepts of faith and religious authority, and involved an onstage toilet prop and live urination. Holly Hughes’ performance of “World Without End” served as a memorial to her mother, with concepts about the battle of the sexes, her father’s abusiveness, fast food culture and growing up in the suburbs. Tim Miller’s works focused on AIDS activism, challenged the Reagan Administration and medical institutions for contributing to the enormous death toll, and often involved a portion of time with the artist naked. 

One of the purposes of performance art is the unfolding of visuals and themes over time, allowing for viewers to process information and develop various thoughts and emotions about the work. Performance art is an experience that cannot be easily condensed or simply described, much in the way that words cannot replicate the visuals of a work of graphic art. There were many reviews from audiences who actually experienced the NEA Four’s works, that said the performances helped provide catharsis, acting as a communal therapy of sorts – an invaluable process that cannot be measured or easily replicated by other methods. I know for many peers viewing performance art is their church, and experiencing such works evokes similar feelings to a religious rite or ceremony, which many conservatives support. 


There is no question in my mind that the quickly enacted “decency law” of Congress in 1990 and the repeal of NEA funding was a thinly veiled attempt to silence LGBT activism and the complicated issues which the AIDS crisis brought up. Three of the NEA Four artists identified as LGBT and the fourth dealt with AIDS issues and sexual assault. There is a reason the motto Silence Equals Death was created. To censor such works of art as those of the NEA Four was a masked attempt to erase the opportunity for community healing and avoid dealing with the elements which plague society. It’s not a difficult stretch to see parallels with how the Nazi regime censored work they labeled Degenerate art.

Some felt that the amount of attention garnered by the NEA Four during the process ought to have been good for their careers, as there is no such thing as bad press except no press at all. It should be noted that along with the attention, the NEA Four received cancelled performances, hate mail, phone calls, and death threats by people who never actually experienced their work in person; just its labeling as “indecent” by some members of Congress. 

I do so enjoy beautiful, satisfyingly simple and seductive works of art, but I am equally capable of recognizing the immense value in complicated and controversial works of art that challenge our perceptions of the world. One doesn’t have to like a work of art to be capable of appreciating it. Performance art can be a powerful vehicle for expression, to hold a mirror up to society, illuminate important issues that need attention, and reshape our perspective. What constitutes “indecent” in one viewer’s mind may be the exact emotional undercurrent another person is feeling that needs to be expressed. As the world grows ever more populated and problems mount, there are more and more festering wounds, which art has the potential to heal in ways not capable by any other means – if we give artists and arts organizations the opportunity and appropriate amount of funding to do so.

Tim Miller (center under Wilde sign with megaphone) at Protests in LA
Tim Miller (center under Wilde sign with megaphone) at Protests in LA

It should be noted that the NEA was originally created along with the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965 under Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to help improve the quality of life for Americans, particularly those in impoverished communities. They were formed during the era of the cold war space race, and there was a growing imbalance in the emphasis on the sciences – humanities and the arts needed some help in order to contribute to LBJ’s vision of The Great Society.


Ana Mendieta (thanks Hans Breder)

Here’s another Staff Picks essay that I wrote for the Torrance Art Museum – as we continue to create personal essays about the art/artists that we enjoy and have influenced us. I think it’s a lovely way to deal with the quarantine and offer a glimpse into what various aesthetics that shape our staff. For my second artist, I chose Ana Mendieta – read below or visit the post directly on the Torrance Art Museum website.

Ana Mendieta (American/Cuban, 1948–1985)
Silueta Works in Iowa
40.6 x 50.8 cm. (16 x 20 in.)

Like many people, especially those raised in a small rural community in Iowa as I was, my early appreciation of art could be described as conservative, influenced more by Hollywood movies, television, commercial cultural aesthetics, and the more recognizable names of the art establishment before the 1960’s. It was during my studies at the University of Iowa liberal arts college that I became exposed to more conceptual/avant-garde work, but as a theatre and film major my perception of contemporary visual art was still rather narrow. A few touring shows by “big name” performance artists and an understudy class in intermedia arts left me scratching my head and unimpressed by the genre overall. However, that would change through an unusual and unexpected opportunity to take a graduate level course led by Professor Hans Breder, the founder of the University’s Intermedia Program in 1968. His introduction to the “earth-body”/Silueta artworks made in Iowa by Ana Mendieta, his student and dear friend, spoke to me on a profoundly personal level that I recognize as helping propel my journey toward understanding the relevancy, impact and importance that performance and conceptual art can possess beyond more traditional art practices.

Mendieta was a Cuban immigrant, sent to live in Dubuque, Iowa in 1961 at age 12 as part of Operation Peter Pan, a program operated by the US government and Catholic charities to secretly help children escape the Castro regime (her father was a political prisoner of Cuba for 18 years for his involvement in the Bay of Pigs). Likely due to the various language issues she experienced and being bounced around foster homes, she developed a love of art as a means of expression. She received both her BA and MFA from the University of Iowa, becoming fascinated by the local avant-garde community and a fascination with the rolling hills and natural landscapes of Iowa. She developed a strong spiritual connection and relationship with nature that she expressed in her art. Displaced from her homeland, she recognized that creating a tie to the earth wherever she was allowed her to feel whole again. 

“Through my earth/body sculptures, I become one with the earth … I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body. This obsessive act of reasserting my ties with the earth is really the reactivation of primeval beliefs … [in] an omnipresent female force, the after image of being encompassing within the womb, is a manifestation of my thirst for being.” 1

Today, Mendieta is recognized as a pioneer in the genres of land art, body art, and performance art – combining them in various ways and documenting the works with photography and film. Natural elements were her primary tools – blood, mud, wood, water, fire.  Some of the results may seem obvious today, but were ground-breaking and pushed the envelope during their time and influenced many artists to follow. Some of her works were violent, addressing her concerns with violence towards and the rape of women, particularly in response to the murder of a woman on campus that sent shock waves through the city. In the late 70’s she moved to NYC and joined the Artists In Residence Inc (A.I.R. Gallery), but after a few years helping with the administration of the all-female cooperative gallery, left the group commenting “American Feminsim as it stands is basically a white middle class movement.” 2

It is tragic she died so early in a promising career at the age of 36, when she fell out her apartment window to her death. Some believe the act was perpetrated on purpose by minimal artist Carl Andre, with whom she had a turbulent marriage, but he was later acquitted of the murder charges. Her life was cut short, but her legacy lives on to inspire future generations.

Mendieta is not a household name, but her body of work pervades the art world in various ways and I have been happy to come across various Silueta pieces in several exhibitions in both the US and Europe over the years. Seeing them instantly aligns me to my roots as an Iowan, a performance artist, and a child of the planet Earth, fulfilling her intentions of creating a connection. Examining the various ways in which she create impressions of her body upon the earth, takes on many levels and layers of meaning. Each time I revisit the works, I discover something new – they speak to something different inside me based upon my feelings and experiences of the time. Her documentation presents to the world the remains of a performance – of an act which was intimately created between herself and the natural world. The photo documentation becomes a memorial and a celebration of the way a life lived creates an impression upon the environment. They harken back to primal instincts and as we continue to live so removed and isolated from the earth it becomes so necessary to remind us how the bond comes in many forms. The photos record a ritual, sharing a window into a personal process that becomes universal through its relationship to the cycles of life and death, a reminder where we all came from and will all return.

Untitled: Silueta Series, Mexico, 1976 Photograph © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection

1 Quote: Ramos, E. Carmen (2014). our america. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

2 Quote: Butler Schwartz, Cornelia Alexandra (2010). Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. p. 389.

Steven Arnold | Rachel Rosenthal

As part of Torrance Art Museum’s work to provide online resources to replace live exhibitions during the COVID-19 pandemic, each member of the Staff (I am their Outreach Specialist) is writing personal essays about works of art and artists that have influenced their own aesthetic.

I chose as my first essay to write about the incredible work of Steven Arnold and the photograph he took of my performance art mentor Rachel Rosenthal. I invite you to read about it – either at the Torrance Art Museum website or in the blog below.

Steven Arnold
Untitled (Rachel Rosenthal)
Vintage Silver Gelatin Photograph

At the grand opening of Centre Pompidou’s 2006 exhibition “Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Artistic Capital”, I was immediately captivated by the power and intimacy of the black and white photography of Steven Arnold. While he was an unknown to me, I would discover just how great, albeit quiet his influence upon the general culture and my life had already been. The exploration of mysticism, archetypes and queer aesthetics through his elaborately composed scenarios using recycled materials and an eclectic mix of found items that combine photography, body painting and assemblage art continues to resonate vividly with my own work and that of many creative peers. 

At the Pompidou, I would discover that Arnold had taken the iconic portrait of his friend and my mentor, performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, in angel wings that was on view in the front window of her office and performance studio. I had always admired the image, but never knew the whole story of its creator. More invested in his artistic output and act of creation than any formal career recognition, Steven Arnold died of AIDS in 1994, leaving his estate in the hands of friend Stephanie Farago, whom was in attendance at the Pompidou opening and championing a new book of his works and aiming to create a documentary film with the extensive archives she kept in Hawaii. That film is now an inspiring reality, narrated by Angelica Houston, called Steven Arnold: Heavenly Bodies which premiered in 2019 at MOCA as part of LA’s LBGTQ Film Festival, OUTFEST. It was directed by Vishnu Dass, a young man with a fascinating story of his own, who is carrying forward the late Farago’s mission of bringing Arnold to greater recognition and the archive’s move to NYC. When Arnold knew he was dying, he spent all his time and energy in his few final years merely shooting images of his models and creations, without developing or printing – and now, thanks to a resurgence of interest and the funding of various artistic institutions, never before seen work is now surfacing.

Arnold got his start as a student of film at the San Francisco Art Institute, where just before graduation in 1968, he premiered his critically successful student art film at the nearby Palace Theatre at midnight alongside works of Man Ray and Georges Méliès. This led to Arnold hosting a regular series of midnight art house and cult film screenings called the Nocturnal Dreamshow, which in turn would become a film phenomenon in urban centers nationally known as Midnight Movies. It also spawned a hippie counterculture drag troupe known as the Cockettes, whom performed live theatrical spectacles before and between film screenings. A documentary film about the troupe premiered at OUTFEST in 2002, which heavily influenced my own interest to transition from work in the Hollywood film industry toward performance art and begin training with Rachel Rosenthal later that autumn.

Arnold went on to direct a film with the Cockettes, called Luminous Procuress, which caught the attention of Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol. Arnold became a protege of Dali and helped him to design and create the Teatro-Museo Dali in Figueres, Spain. Upon return to the states, Arnold moved to LA, where disappointed by attempts to work his aesthetics into the mainstream film industry went on to create his own body of still photographic work. He gathered found objects from his neighborhood to compose artistic sets, spending some time to lay them out in various arrangements on his studio floor. He would then invite friends over for a long dinner conversation and preparation before having them lie on the floor inside his compositions, where he would quickly photograph them from above on a ladder.

Revisiting my first experience with his work, the 1985 photograph “Untitled (Rachel Rosenthal)” brings up a variety of observations. First, there is the level the piece works directly as an iconic representation of an angel, with Rosenthal’s arms outstretched in a manner that is warm and welcoming while being theatrical and mystical. Unlike some of Arnold’s other scenarios, it is a rather simply adorned piece, with much brilliance in the restraint for the focus on the figure. Rosenthal is boldly lit at center with massive wings that angle outward beyond the edges of the photo. The bundle of tulle over her body seems both intricately placed and thrown together randomly – simultaneously energized and frenetic, yet soft and comforting. She is surrounded in a dark black void peppered with a few pearl-like stars. The image also represents the kind of commanding force of nature that Rosenthal herself was. She crafted performance artworks that intelligently dug into her audience’s psyche while delivering works that could condemn petty human action while still offering an uplifting message. Arnold created a whole body of work involving angels, for they reflected his need to express photographic memorials for friends dying during the AIDS epidemic as a way to transform his pain and mythologize their ascension. It is a fitting example of how art can provide much needed solace in times of crisis, both helping the community to move onward and to leave lasting messages that will inspire future generations in ways as Arnold has in mine. 

More about Steven at:

What Is It About Trees – Extras

More videos about my installation and video art piece involved in the exhibition “What Is It About Trees” at El Camino College Art Gallery.

First a cut from LA Art Documents video about the entire exhibition, where curator Susanna Meiers talks specifically about my work:

To view the entire LA Art Documents about the show please watch here:

And finally, a fun time lapse video of the installation of the mandala!

What Is It About Trees – Video

I am pleased to share the results of my work for the exhibition “What Is It About Trees” at El Camino College Art Gallery from Feb 18 – March 12 (now extended through April 3). This post focuses on the video art piece “El Camino Tree Meditation” I created for the exhibition based on a process of visiting the campus several times between November and January to record video footage of the trees after the meditation practice.

A short excerpt from the 15 minute video

Artist Statement for “El Camino Tree Meditation”

The video was created from a conceptual process of spending time with and meditating among the trees on El Camino College campus from Nov 2019-Jan 2020. After several sessions of quietly listening and observing the trees and the surrounding environment, the vision of creating the final form of the video became clear.

There were numerous elements of particular note in the process of spending intimate time with the trees. Of course, the visual pleasure of enjoying the colors of the leaves and finding beautiful patterns in the bark are most evident, but from there a profound sense of how a tree provides home, shelter, security, and sustenance for various animals unfolds. The more one spends time with a tree, one further appreciates how truly alive and life-giving a tree is.

One becomes aware of how life in contemporary society separates humanity from close connection, but how innately bonded we truly are. Our own lives on this planet depend on trees, and we must restore proper balance and respect for them. Rooted in one place, trees act as silent sentinels and landmarks of location, and remind the ever-moving human to slow down their rhythm and tap into a deeper sense of connection to the surroundings.

There is a desire to anthropomorphize and this video reflects that impulse, yet trees have a very distinctive perspective of the world. Unlike humans, trees experience life with a consciousness both under and above the ground. Science now confirms that they communicate and share both food and information with each other through their roots. There is an endless amount of insight and inspiration to gain from spending time with trees.

What Is It About Trees – Mandala

I am pleased to share the results of my work for the exhibition “What Is It About Trees” at El Camino College Art Gallery from Feb 18 – March 12 (now extended through April 3).

My installation for the show evolved from a process of visiting the trees on the El Camino campus between November through January in order to observe and meditate underneath the trees. About once a week or so, I spent time with several different types of trees on the campus, using a range of techniques and methods for centering myself and slowing down. This was a most welcome change of pace from a typically hectic schedule, and I am grateful the campus is not too far from my home and the Torrance Art Museum where I work.

As a result of the meditation, a vision of a mandala made from the tree leaves came to mind. I saw clearly a distinct ring of gold-leaf sycamore leaves creating an outer halo – with various smaller leaves creating the inner circle. That vision became the guide for collecting fallen leaves from the trees and applying them with both gold and bronze leaf in certain places to create a vibrant accent – but the leaves themselves were already such beautiful works of art. Once the installation was underway, it became obvious that the mandala could also serve as a meditation spot inviting people to have a seat on a stump and reflect upon their relationship with trees and to view the accompanying installation by Vojislav Radovanovic across the way. It also served as a “selfie station” (as much as I can be against those, why resist it in this case?), so the stump was also adorned with gold and bronze leaves to match the mandala.

This post focuses on the “El Camino Tree Mandala” created site-specifically in a special room of the gallery across from Vojislav Radovanovic’s installation “House for Angels” – the two pieces were a lovely conversation, which was described as “honoring the energy of sun (my mandala) and the moon (Vojislav’s work which were in shades of white, black, silver, and blue).” See another post which focuses on the video art piece that was created as a result of the meditation process as well.


A quick glimpse and ODE to the year of JOYOUS performances in 2019!

Thank you to everyone involved in making them happen – it has been a truly amazing year, I am filled with gratitude for the variety of events and opportunities.

Looking forward to what 2020 brings and wishing all the very best to face the various challenges of life – oh this remarkable and daunting shared existence on the planet!

Scenes from:

1) “Temptations in Fairyland” – at Leonard Greco’s art exhibition Fairyland at MOAH:CEDAR (Museum of Art & History Lancaster)

2) “Rear Opening: A Performance Tribute to Stephen Varble” for photographer Greg Day & curator David J Getsy at ONE Archives Gallery & Museum in West Hollywood

3) “OutLoud 2019: Queer Futures” in Long Beach, Art Theatre

4) “LET LOVE FLOURISH: Queer Poetry Pop-up” for the One City One Pride LGBTQ Arts Festival in West Hollywood

5) “A Man’s World” for Exhibition Opening Reception of MAN at MuzeuMM Art Gallery

6) “eXtremities” at SelectionArtShow Closing Reception, Touchon Gallery

7) “Dimensionalizing Narcissus” at Redondo Beach CA 101 TEDx “Create Change”

8) “Rose/Mary” at Opening Reception for My Youth Exhibition at TAG Gallery

9) “Qreatures: The (w)Hole Story” for glendaleOUT exhibition ACE/121 Gallery in Glendale

Ecstasy – “Behind” the Scenes

Check out the teaser trailer for ECSTASY FOR EVERYONE!
Get your tickets for all three events today:

This teaser is a tongue-in-cheeky look “Behind” the scenes getting ready for the production. Ok, so it may not really have anything to do with the actual performance other than containing some of the the spirit and fun of the show. This is definitely a show I’m thrilled about doing.

James Broughton’s poetry contains so many elements I love. His poetry is rich with interpretation and inspiration. He uses a LOT of humor in them while containing very deep and meaningful explorations of humanity. They are wise and wise-cracking. They’re bawdy, outrageous and tickle the private parts! They make you think and leave you inspired.

Here’s one sample – making use of humor to explore the macabre

Thinking About Death 

How often do you think about Death?
Death thinks about you all the time
Death is fatally in love with you and me
And his lust is known to be relentless 

Life is an equally persistent lover
He was desiring each of us before we were born
I try to remain faithful to him but I know
The relationship can’t go on forever

Life relishes my body heat my heart beating
My blood my semen even my steamy notions
Death cherishes what is cool and mysterious in me
All that is shadowy and perverse like him 

I like to think of Death awaiting our rendezvous
In a candlelit corner of an intimate café
Where he will regale me with scandalous tales
Of misbehavior in other worlds 

Yet in the end it is Life that wears us out
At that crosswalk what will the traffic bear?
Shouldn’t we think about Death more often?
Death is thinking about us all the time. 

I believe in “Ecstasy for Everyone!”

It’s official – Ecstasy for Everyone! returns to the stage in 2020! Starting with a performance at the Vashon Center for the Arts in Washington (just outside of Seattle) on January 11, 2020 at 8pm as part of a BIG JOY festival weekend to celebrate the visionary filmmaker and poet James Broughton. More dates and locations will be announced as the year progresses, but this is definitely a show to share with many more audiences who are going to need some BIG JOY and Ecstasy for Everyone! in the days ahead.

I’m beyond thrilled to present an updated version of my 2014 show. This newly commissioned production allows me to add in some new poems and expand the show from four to five sections and take place in two acts with an intermission.

One of the best parts is getting to work with an incredible production team. I’m working closely with Art Director Vojislav Radovanovic to create new visual elements, scenic and costume design. And Dr. Kathy Nigh is director and along with Vojislav serving as a skillful outside eye to find and encourage new possibilities. They have been working together on a remarkable theatre production of a show called “Ladybird: A Holiday Posada” at Pasadena City College, and I’m pleased they could work together again on this show.

More details to come – in the meantime – enjoy a few photos from the 2014 production. Photos by Gregory Frye.

the ReBegin is here