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Much ado about nipples

So what's Charlotte got against nipples? Everybody's got nipples.Charlotte artist Leslie Bivens wants to know why the TransAmerica Building won't allow her sculptures depicting nippled torsos to show in the uptown 7th Street windows across from St. Peter's Episcopal Church.

The McColl Center for Visual Art granted Bivens space in the TransAmerica windows on 7th street to exhibit three sets of her artwork in these, the summer dog days, on through the fall. When her second show art turned out to be female torsos with nipples, concerned citizens became aroused, indignant and vocal. So? So Bivens' nippled torsos will not grace 7th street.

But her Battle Bitches will; in fact, they're already there. Walk on the sidewalk along the wrought iron fence wrapping around St. Peter's Episcopal Church on 7th Street between North Tryon and Church and look left. Caged behind glass are six fighting women, each poised and outfitted for attack. These are the battle bitches.

Well, formerly known as Battle Bitches, but not any more. Ce Scott, the Director of Artists and Community Relations at the McColl Center for Visual Art, thought the committee who reviewed the selections for the window art might object.

"She told me the name was a no-no," said Bivens. Bivens trusts Scott -- "Ce Scott is an angel!" -- and she consented to change the name to 36-18-34. Oh, well.

Who put a bug in Ce Scott's ear? What could they be thinking? How clean do these city streets have to be? I asked the artist who constructed these wickedly wonderful pieces why would they object to the title. She doesn't know. All she knows is she was told that the title wouldn't fly. But what's in a name? By any name, this work takes flight.

From across the street, Leslie Bivens' six sculptural females look like tree branches on wheels, stick figures made mobile with flowing lines becoming bodies. From a distance, we see leafless branches and roots taking on human form, mocking movements borrowed from modern dance and from Xena, princess warrior. From a distance, there's no gender issue, no artist's polemic, no explicit sexual content.

But up close the work has teeth. And pubic hair!

Each piece boasts a central Barbie torso, with arms, legs and head removed and Barbie's breasts enhanced with found objects. The breast augmentations include electrical wire nuts, drill bit accessories, flashlights and drywall anchors with fish hooks. My favorites are the airplane propellers -- this Barbie will take flight from bondage; she's a child's plaything no more.

A hammer head sprouts from Barbie's petite neck, replacing the generic white face and blond tresses, changing her profile dramatically by replacing soft lines with hard edges and offering power and force to the ageless face of pleasant submission.

Each figure sprouts mammoth willowy limbs constructed from roots or branches. Barbie explodes; she celebrates her liberation from her little plastic body. Right arms are raised in attack mode, each brandishing her weapon of choice -- grappling hooks, game darts, thorns, sawed-off knitting needles or bent jigsaw blades. Each figure seems to invite confrontation. And the title Battle Bitches seems more appropriate all the time. One piece mimics the pas-de-deux ballet position, branched arms in a cradling position, steel Scissorhand fingers curved and sharpened. Delicate and cultured, but still lethal.

An attractive tu-tu is worn by each dancer-warrior. The artist maintains the tu-tu's traditional stiffness we remember from endless performances of The Nutcracker, but she deviates from tradition by eschewing the familiar frilly material in favor of circular saw blades, Plexiglas discs and steel grinding wheels. Her tu-tus are "high riders," worn well above the belly button and exposing pubic hair rendered with thatched grass, steel wool or scouring pads. Thin legs branch from her torso adorned with lacy fishnet stockings and the occasional leopardskin garter. Oh, behave!

Each battle-ready Barbie sprouts steel butterfly wings between her shoulder blades. Finally! -- a feminine touch.

These pieces are all deftly constructed, whimsical, theatrical and comically lethal. But sexually provocative? Maybe to a wood nymph. These sinuous willows are majestic and aloof, capturing a bit of those irksome qualities we all love and fear in women -- their strength, resilience and uppityness. These pieces whisper the rumor of women's likely survival without, or in spite of, men. Leslie Bivens has quickened our communal pulse.

So why nix her nipples?

It's a mystery. Bivens was disappointed to learn the torso pieces would not enjoy the very public show she feels they deserve. She felt better after receiving e-mails from many who see and appreciate her warrior women. She was further encouraged when Ce Scott offered her an indoor show at the Center for her nippled torsos.

I asked Ce Scott how Bivens was originally chosen for the show.

"I called her and asked her to submit a proposal. I like her work."

Ce Scott selects proposals and sends images of the work over to Becky Hanum, the director of the Bank of America Art Program.

Ce Scott called Bivens and told her they wouldn't let the torsos show in the window. Bivens asked why. Scott didn't know why. I called Becky Hanum to ask, but she and her assistant were out of town. Three others couldn't comment; they referred me to Hanum. I gave up asking.

I just figure it's the nipple thing.

Legend has it, around 1990, the great city of Rock Hill, SC, commissioned an artist to install four mammoth goddess sculptures at the city entrance near I-77. To the consternation of the reigning civic leaders, the four gold statues boasted breasts -- with nipples! The issue was resolved with an eight-inch sidegrinder. No more nipples.

We long to be a world class city. Is Rock Hill our model?

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