‘Unfit for Public View?’ Another Chat with Tim Pennington
Tim Pennington, a really creative artist with whom we spoke a while ago, recently had a career moment, of sorts. A painting of his was pulled from the walls of Blackbird Espresso Bar & Bistro in Topeka, Kansas. The title of the painting (we’re wild about Tim’s titles, for the record) is “That’s nothing! Just wait until he plucks his drum-sticks out of his butt-hole!
From the moment we saw his Facebook update about the incident–”Blackbird … deemed one of my paintings unfit for public view and yanked it off of the wall! Ouch!”–we knew he’d have very interesting things to say about the situation. Plus we were just excited at the chance to catch up with the artist and see what other irons are in the fire.
Osmosis Online: So, Tim — What happened?
Tim Pennington: I was planning on spending some time in my hometown of Topeka, Kansas, this summer, and I really wanted to have a show there for a variety of reasons. I always cite Al Gore’s loss in the 2000 election as evidence that you must have the support of your hometown first and foremost. Topeka has also been making some strong and commendable efforts to sort of reshape their image with art as a main focus, and I wanted to be a part of that in some small way. I arranged to have a show in a coffee shop–in fact the first place that I ever showed–in July.
There was a new owner, so he reviewed my work online before okaying it. At this time the painting in question was unfinished, and therefore unseen. It is a picture of a big bald guy, drenched in blood from the top down, with butterfly wings, and surrounded by butterflies. The idea behind this piece is that this guy is a performer–one that goes to great lengths (a la G.G. Allin) to entertain. So here he is drenched in blood, and everyone around him is staring at him, thinking to themselves “What’s up with this freak?” But from his perspective, they’re all looking at him adoringly and he’s thinking “They love me! I’m a beautiful butterfly!” So the title of the piece–sort of a response to the crowds question “What’s up with this freak?”–is the reply “That’s nothing. Just wait until he plucks his drumsticks out of his butthole!”
When I went to hang the show, the owner of the coffee shop was in the hospital with what sounded like some serious medical difficulties. I hung the show without thinking twice about it. In fact, I was really excited about it. It was my largest show yet, and the place had by far the best lighting that I have ever been afforded. When my girlfriend came to town we went to go see it, and she was actually the first to notice. She said “something’s missing. Your new one.” I said “No. It’s right over here.” and went to show her where it was, only to see a blank wall.
OO: Is it actually kind of cool in a way, having a piece banned/censored/etc–like an artist’s rite of passage in a sense? Or does it just piss you off? It seems you’re certainly using it as motivation for other creative endeavors (like the documentary you mentioned).
TP: I have a friend–Jason Needham–that works at an after-school art program for gifted but underprivileged teens. When a girl there had a piece banned, I believe for copyright concerns, he told her, “The only thing cooler than having a piece in the show is having a piece banned from the show.” I think that there is a lot of merit to the thought that it is a right of passage to a developing artist. Unfortunately, I don’t really consider myself a developing artist. The reason that I have shows is for people to see my work, especially my newest work.
I can’t say that it really pisses me off, though. It kind of hurts my feelings. It makes me feel like they think I’m being sort of adolescent–going for shock value. I personally feel like going for shock value is trite. I try to make paintings that are very human and relatable. Almost all of my paintings are a tongue-in-cheek look at one or another personality characteristic. I would never make a painting that I thought pushed the boundaries of common decency. My paintings take far too much time and effort to waste it on a painting that is unfit for the general public.
The idea of making a documentary has actually been slow in developing. I didn’t initially want to do anything that would make waves. I struggled with the decision to even pull the show. But eventually I figured “Why have a show if I can’t show my paintings?” The idea to make a documentary isn’t even mine. My girlfriend–Jeni Jeffrey–is a photographer and film-maker, and it was her idea. Like I said, I didn’t really like the idea at first. but she said “At least let me film you taking the show down.” and I consented. While we were filming, we only approached one person–an employee, to ask what happened. But others approached us, and what we got on film was pure gold. After that, the documentary had to be made.
OO: Did Blackbird asked for a replacement piece, or just intended to display one less painting?
TP: The establishment did not communicate with me in any way, shape, or form before or after pulling the painting down. It was only after I pulled the show and they heard we were filming a documentary that I heard from the owner.
He then told me the circumstances under which it had been pulled down. He got out of the hospital a couple of weeks after the show had been up and he pulled the painting down immediately upon seeing it. I asked if there had been any complaints and he said no. This is a coffee shop that is visited by not only the regular coffee shop intelligentsia, but also a fair number of senior citizens from the homes behind it, and in fact a number people from the Fred Phelps hate group (the “God Hates Fags” people). And no one complained.
OO: If you were to take all the paintings on display — or maybe even everything you’ve done — and pick a few you were worried might offend someone’s sensibilities, would it be the one in question? If not, what of your works would you think would be the most provocative in that sense?
TP: As I said earlier, I would never make a painting that I didn’t think was fit for the general public. But you deserve a better answer to your question so yes, I imagine it would be among those paintings most likely to offend people’s sensibilities. But he’s just covered in blood. He has no apparent wounds, and his facial expression is pure ecstasy–there is clearly no pain or torture going on in this painting. It is not nearly as violent or graphic as any number of images that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. I would really think that a painting that you guys ran last year–”I’ve never dealt with a jealous ex-girlfriend before, but I think I can take her“–would be more likely to offend someone. It depicts the moment that a girl succumbs to her love for another girl, struggling against the social convention that has been drilled into her. But both of these paintings are about real feelings that are felt by real people. They aren’t grotesque.
Actually there is another painting–from years ago that I don’t show because it doesn’t really fit with my current paintings–that would probably be the most offensive. It is a first-person view looking down into a toilet that is yellow with pee and has a cigarette floating in it, the reality around it warped. But again, I think that a lot of us have felt what this painting portrays, and I’ve never heard anyone say that it’s gross.
OO: When Osmosis Online last talked to you, you told our good friend Matt Graves that you’d taken a long period off before you started to paint again. You told Matt that you’d done about six paintings in your “new style” — that was about 1.5 years ago that you and he spoke — have you continued to create and paint?
TP: I have continued to paint. The painting that this is all about is new since that last article. Painting has become something of a life mission for me. I feel a strong need to create as many paintings as a can before I die! I still want to go back to school for an M.F.A., and schools are being really cool these days about letting you be inter-disciplinary, which is great because there are also some sculptures that I’d like to make.
OO: You also shared that you were mostly painting out of a public storage locker, and had very limited time windows. Is that still the status quo? Do you have a 9-5? How and when do you find the time to work on your art? Any other updates you care to share? (Still in S.F. Valley?)
TP: Since that article, I rented a great studio in downtown Los Angeles. I loved it, but time moves on. I’m trying to get into the wonderful world of tattooing, mainly as something that could put me through school. So I’ve let go of that studio, and I’m mainly drawing flesh these days. I’m going to focus on that for this year as I apply to different M.F.A. programs.
I do want to thank you for giving me this forum.
OO: The pleasure is all ours, believe me.
TP: Outlets like your mag are exactly what we need to tip the balance of conventional–maybe conservative–thought on issues exactly like this. I think that it’s important as a society to let everyone know that we won’t accept suppressing issues that are common to the human experience. That we will accept humans for exactly what we are, not promote an image of what we aren’t as the only acceptable prototype for behavior. And especially to give everyone a chance to show that they can be open-minded. Thank you guys so much, and all of you who read this.