"3335 W. Diversey"
"3335 W. Diversey" Credit: Courtesy Amie Sell

Nothing makes an artwork more irresistible than censorship. Pull a painting off the wall because someone finds it intolerably offensive, and everyone else will lust to see it, immediately.

That, of course, is what the Internet is good for.

Last week Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing—Leena McCall’s painting of a tattooed, pipe-smoking woman with her trousers lowered to reveal pubic hair—was yanked from the 153rd annual Society of Women Artists exhibit in London. It went viral.

Like David K. Nelson’s 1988 portrait of Mayor Harold Washington in women’s undies—ripped from the wall at the School of the Art Institute by furious aldermen and taken into custody by the Chicago Police Department—it’s getting recognition it would never have attained if it hadn’t been pronounced unfit for public viewing.

But the Internet’s not such a great way to see banned installation art.

For everyone pissed off that Amie Sell’s site-specific piece was removed from the recent Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival before the show opened, the good news is that she’ll be mounting it again in nearby venues in August and September.

The bad news is that this little neighborhood incident is a pointed example of what can happen when art gets into bed with commerce.

Sell was censored because she bit the hand that feeds the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival. Her installation, Home Sweet Home, was critical of M. Fishman & Co., the property management firm that runs the building where it was to be displayed.

M. Fishman & Company head Mark Fishman is a founder, board member, treasurer, and the major underwriter of the nonprofit arts organization I AM Logan Square (short for Independent Artists and Merchants of Logan Square), which in 2010 took over running the festival from 35th Ward alderman Rey Colón, a past recipient of campaign donations from Fishman. The nonprofit’s office and gallery are housed in another building owned by Fishman.

Sell wasn’t there when a Fishman employee took her work down, stashed it in a plastic bag, and locked it in an adjacent empty space.

“I was just taking a stand with the tools I have as an artist. I thought we could have discussion; apparently I was naive.”
—Artist Amie Sell, whose installation Home Sweet Home was removed from the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival

A sculptor with a day job as an architectural librarian, Sell’s a nine-year resident of Logan Square. She says Fishman & Co. came to her attention last winter, when tenants from one of its buildings, at 2536 N. Sawyer, staged a protest and passed out leaflets at the Logan Theatre (which Fishman also owns and renovated with the help of $1 million in TIF funds). The tenants said that after Fishman acquired their building the previous fall, some were forced to leave their apartments, while others faced huge rent increases. Sell, who’s been working on a long-term project about the many rental homes where her own life has played out so far, empathized. She helped organize a new affordable-housing group, Somos (We Are) Logan Square, and began photographing buildings where tenants were being displaced.

In early June, Sell learned she’d been accepted for the Milwaukee Avenue fest, which showcases local artists in spaces along its namesake street. She was assigned the rear portion of an empty storefront at 2779 N. Milwaukee; the front of the space would be occupied by a group of other artists. Sell says when she realized that this space was part of a structure she’d already photographed—a former single-room-occupancy building whose tenants had been forced to move—Home Sweet Home began to take shape in her mind as a site-specific project. The finished work consists of four fleece blankets printed with enlarged photos of Fishman properties above text (e.g., “A combination of confusion and fear are being used to spook current residents into leaving”), a chair with its back cushion cross-stitched “Home sweet home” in five different languages (a nod to the community’s immigrants), and a collage of photos and acrylic paint on vellum. On the evening of June 26, she installed it.

At work the next morning, she got an e-mail asking her to call one of the show’s curators, who said there was concern that her installation would be upsetting to Fishman, who’d donated the space. The festival opened at 5 PM that day; Sell got there shortly after to find that Home Sweet Home had already vanished.

M. Fishman and Co. would not comment for this story.

Sell says I AM Logan Square board chair Geary Yonker told her that Mark Fishman had threatened to close the space if her installation stayed, which would have meant that the group show wouldn’t be seen either. That’s not something she wanted to be responsible for, Sell says. So she retrieved her work and went home.

“I knew he was the landlord of the space, and I knew it would be confrontational in some way,” Sell says. “But I always figured that within the art space there’s some sort of safety, and there can be dialogue about these things. I was just taking a stand with the tools I have as an artist. I thought we could have discussion; apparently I was naive.”

Yonker (a former Reader sales staffer) says, “One of the representatives of the property owner saw the piece and passed that information along to the property owner. The property owner contacted us and requested us to take it down. It was the position of the festival and of I AM Logan Square that we supported [Sell’s] right to give her opinion and we refused to take it down. Ultimately, the property owner had the keys to the space, and he sent one of his people over to take it down.”

Will this have an effect on the future of I AM Logan Square and the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Fest? “I think it was a unique situation,” Yonker says. “The piece was talking directly about the property owner who had donated the space to the festival.”