Was it “Censorship” at 500X?

by William Sarradet December 13, 2019



I worked as security staff at Frieze Art Fair in New York last year, and one day while pacing the sprawling tent on my short lunch break, I caught the work of Tom of Finland in one of the booths. Ugh, I thought. Even as a gay male, this stuff gives me dysphoria. Tom of Finland’s men, engorged at the hips and muscle-bound, ignore me. Or worse, they make it very clear that I am not welcome. His work is the most concentrated form of the gay male gaze, which, in his work, pushes fantasy to its limits. And there is an audience for that, of course. But everything has an audience. Sexual imagery appears in art all the time, but art, unlike pornography, leans heavily on context.

Earlier this week, an exhibition titled Queer Me Now: The Queer Body & Gaze opened at 500X in Dallas to one of the youngest crowds I’ve seen there. 500X, by floor space, is large. It’s an old industrial building whose public spaces host exhibitions organized by the artist collective named 500X, after the building. It’s also a residential building with apartments both up and downstairs. Doors to the apartments share wall space with exhibitions. There are wide open spaces and high ceilings where work is installed, and there are project rooms on both of the floors. The residents of the building don’t play a part in what art is put on display. As a courtesy, the lights have to be out by 10 pm on opening night of exhibitions. 

The Queer Me Now exhibition, curated by UTD alum Narong Tintamusik, features work by Joshua Bryant, Jer’lisa Devezin, Steven Hector Gonzalez, Christian Roman, and Gem You. Most of the work is the abstract, theoretical approach of image-making that one might expect to find in a show focused on “fresh talent of queer artists making queer art in our local community.” The title of the show is taken from a blog of the same name that proliferates hardcore gay scenes produced in the adult industry. The work in the show that evokes this most directly is by Roman. Roman’s contribution is a series of illustrations done in marker, colored pencil, micron pens and other touches, which feature graphic scenes of hardcore, fantastical gay sex. 

Installation view of Christian Roman’s work at “Queer Me Now” at 500X, Dallas

Among the works, there are scenes of anal penetration and anthropomorphic devils gagging their subjects. As is customary for the genre, many of the bottoms, or penetrative partners, have distressed or ecstatic expressions on their faces. The sexually graphic nature of some of the material is something we could label ‘hardcore’. There are elements of violence, sadism and masochism, cartoonishly heightened. One panel features a figure that may be Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise, choking his victim with one hand and holding a knife above him in the other, all during penetration. A woman in the background sits lifeless, covered in blood. These are graphic sexual fantasies illustrated with great finesse and precision. Technically, they are beautiful. These are in the vein of fetish art, a la Tom of Finland, which borders on pornography while maintaining an air that it is meaningful somehow, as well as arousing.

The show opened on December 7, and the show was taken down by its organizers on December 9, following an alleged complaint from the building’s owner, the Gibson Company. 

An outcry on social channels followed (including @the500X on Instagram, which announced the de-install); the gist is that censoring art is wrong. That is a satisfying ultimatum, but it flattens some of the circumstances around this show. During the opening, I saw no posted warning to the graphic nature of the content in the show. If it was there, it failed to grab my attention before I saw the work. There was no door, curtain, or sign to indicate that a viewer may need to make a decision before they proceed. Again, the building is a mix of public and private space, and the artists do not live in the building. Tenants could feel uncomfortable about the kind of art that is on view, and children could easily wander into the space installed with Roman’s work without having to do so much as turn a doorknob.

A curator or gallerist is usually thoughtful about how to exhibit work; even museums and commercial galleries given over to only showing art post helpful signs when content ahead is decidedly adult. It’s a standard practice in exhibiting art. 

The orders to take the entire show down come from the Gibson Company, which owns a lot of property in Expo Park. On social media, the cry of censorship in this case is directed at the landlord, specifically for shutting out queer art. But does anyone like their landlord? Find a Dallas artist with good rapport with their property manager and I’ll gladly buy them a coffee. Queer Me Now’s curator, Tintamusik, has a personal website (at the time of this writing) that features a disclaimer that they are working with 500X to find another space to place the show. Would the shutting-down outcome at 500X be the same if there had been a curtain in front of the work in question? The censorship argument would be different then, and far more valid. And that’s not something to overlook.

Scandal and outrage have a way of washing away all other conversation, for the sake of headlines and polemics. Anger is an intoxicating emotion. That’s unfortunate, because art can be a tool for understanding what events and images mean. Not just to us, but as signifiers of the progress we want in the world.


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Molly Dierks December 13, 2019 - 21:28

So if you’re going to show the work again, shouldn’t this article have a warning? I didn’t have to turn a doorknob to find it.

Jo Cervantes December 13, 2019 - 21:47

This criticism misses the point. The only reason William Sarradet is able to write this piece in the first place is because he was able to view the work in question at the opening, before that opportunity was taken away from everyone. And that is the problem with censorship— it denies us the opportunity to decide how we feel about something ourselves. Had Mr. Sarradet not attended the opening, he wouldn’t be allowed to have an opinion.

Dan December 14, 2019 - 14:08

This seems like a strange way to write off the author’s argument without actually addressing its substance. (“Because the author saw the work, while others didn’t, his criticism is wrong.”)

My reaction was more or less the opposite of yours. I felt that because the author saw the show, while I and most others involved in the discussion around it did not, his points were valuable. Especially his point that a bit more thoughtfulness on the part of the gallerists could have gone a long way.

Hannah December 14, 2019 - 21:31

I have been following this story to see various commentaries/considerations. Based on Roman’s work, I can see why parents/prudes may be uncomfortable with the work. Not sure I’m ready for my three year old to be asking me questions about sex/violence fantasies, queer or otherwise.

Hannah December 14, 2019 - 22:21

(That said, as a tenant I would not have complained. IMO Art galleries get free reign to proceed however they see fit and I would have worked around it. By it, I don’t mean queer art. As the author illustrates, it is “mature content” that seemed to be the residential issue?)

These are the kinds of stories worth following, and I’m glad 500x has put the censorship “out there” for everyone to consider. And that Sarradet wrote this think piece. As with any big topic in the art world, the discussions surrounding any event are required reading.

Rachel Rogerson December 15, 2019 - 09:57

First, it is censorship. I stand with the LGBTQI community and the artists impacted.

The demand was to remove all exhibited works regardless of content.

As far as I know, the organization existed in the space prior to it being an apartment complex. Artists have been establishing roots there for 40 years. I would assume tenants pay a premium to live there because it’s an art space. It’s not the other way around – this is not a pop-up venue in a residential setting. This is place making.

In my mind the real question is not “Was it ‘censorship’ at 500X?” But what happens to a local art scene already stifled by conservative attitudes? Where do emerging artists go? Probably not here.

According to the 500X website: “500X Gallery is one of Texas’ oldest, artist run, cooperative galleries. Established in 1978, 500X provides one of the best exhibition spaces to up and coming artists in the city of Dallas … The goal was to provide a space for artists to exhibit free of outside influences and dealer restrictions.”

While 500X may strive to present professional quality exhibitions it is not run by professional curators or museum/nonprofit experts. It is a space for emerging artists to experiment.

Ben Greiner December 15, 2019 - 10:56

Rachel, well-said, I agree with all the points you’ve made. 4/5s of the art displayed in Queer Me Now were abstract pieces and could have stayed put if the real intent was to only to censor “mature content.” Striking out all of the works as a whole sent the message that queer art was not to be tolerated in the public space. It looks to be a grave time for 500X—queer art not tolerated due to circumstances out of the collective’s control. Residential tenants knew what they were signing up for when they moved in. Shame on you, Gibson Co.

Lynné Cravens December 15, 2019 - 12:48

Rachel Rogerson, thank you for stating what is the real concerning portion of this whole thing. I couldn’t have started it better myself. As a former member, the idea is to have a space to try out new things in a space that supports more experimental work than a commercial gallery. While the authors comments about the lack of mature content signage is a good point; however, the whole exhibition did not need to be removed if the complaint was indeed around mature content of a few pieces. There was no room in the conversation between the Gibson Co and 500x to negotiate how that exhibition could carry on, it was to remove the whole thing.

Hannah December 15, 2019 - 20:12

“The demand was to remove all works…” is the best counter to this piece. Still here for the comments.

Alison Starr December 15, 2019 - 11:14

Thank you Rachel for your insight and focus on what I agree are the critical issues. And this statement from the 500x website being pertinent: “…The goal was to provide a space for artists to exhibit free of outside influences and dealer restrictions.” There is so much more to unpack from the incident, the article by Sarradet, as well as what is happening (has been happening) here in Dallas regarding the arts. I believe deeper discussions are needed and I am up for being part of them.

Joachim West December 15, 2019 - 12:05

I’ve show porn art at 500x. It was a image that I had found that reminded me of picassos breakthrough painting les demoiselles d’avignon. On a thin sheet of paper I printed picassos painting and on the other side I printed the pornographic image so that you could see both sides of the paper at once sort of how cubism shows more than one side of an object at once. This probably is no surprise for people who know my work. I’ve also been censored many times by others though the censor that I battle the most is myself. I am constantly fighting with the impulse to make work that is palatable for a wider audience. When I first heard that gay art had been censored, I was upset but now after seeing the images themselves and reading this article I understand that this is a much more complicated issue. I can understand why someone might have complained if they live with children in the building. At the same time, I imagine that the residents of the building should have been aware that they sometimes might show work that is inappropriate for children and shouldn’t have moved there. I wish that I had been censored when I showed my porn/art at 500x and they wrote an article about my work on glasstire. The kind of censorship where your work never sees the light of day at all is far more common and far worse. I wonder if there is a resident there with children who doesn’t want their child being exposed to horror porn or if it’s just some adult who thinks that gay sex is icky.

Michael A. Morris December 15, 2019 - 17:26

I have to agree that this is certainly censorship. While William makes a valid point that certain considerations to how sexually explicit material is installed can be made, the same goes for how the response on the part of the landlord and tenants takes shape. If putting certain works behind a curtain and posting a warning would make the difference, why was that not the solution proposed rather than taking the whole show down?

Michael A. Morris December 17, 2019 - 18:14

Fuck it, I’ll go ahead and explicitly state a question implied in Rachel’s comment above: Does this censorship really stem from the content of the art or is that content providing an excuse for the management company / building owners to move toward kicking the co-op out? Definitely speculation on my part, but I would not be surprised.

Naomi December 22, 2019 - 12:38

It seems plausible that one of the central points of this work is to shock and offend—to seek out the limits of the socially acceptable. Mission accomplished! There exists equally violent images of heterosexual experience. If they were rendered as these have, they would also have been shut down. Traditionally, artists have been allowed to show disturbing and horrific images by virtue of the beauty and trembling emotional depth of the image. Witness countless classical depictions of war, crucifixion, rape, etc. I have the impression that the offending work in this show has emptied its players of presence and interior. Without recourse to a redeeming humanization, perhaps the viewer is encouraged to experience the work as porn rather than art.

Ellice G Sanchez December 23, 2019 - 19:08

I like that there supposedly no warning signs. Life gives you no warning signs when living it.

Also, a warning sign pushes someone else’s interpretation of the art out there, instead of letting the viewer think and feel for themself.

I also think if someone has a problem with my art, gosh golly, THEY are the one with the problem, not my incarnate emotional expression (art).

I do very much understand the problem felt here. I have been wanting to do a guerilla, collaborative art show but I often see that “indecent” activites are banned from venues, so I assume this means my nude self portraits.


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