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No Nudes, Nu?: Orthodox Community Clashes With LES Gallerist Over XXX Art

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NEW YORK--A current exhibition at the Lower East Side's Allegra LaViola Gallery has drawn fiery opposition from some unlikely art critics: Orthodox Jews. The show, "Pornucopia," examines excess and pornography in artwork and includes paintings, video, and installations by nudity-loving artists Alison Blickle, Paul Brainard, and Stephen Irwin. According to LaViola, rumblings of dissatisfaction began with a visit from an irate rabbi during the February 4th opening and have continued for the duration of the show, culminating with three visits from the police in the last two weeks.

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Sarah Kurz's "It's Sorta Nice, Isn't It?," 2011 / Coutesy Allegra LaViola Gallery, New York

The eponymous gallery is located at the border of two Lower East Side communities, with the neighborhood's fast-growing art district to the west and a long-established Orthodox enclave to the east. This isn't the first time the two groups have mingled in the area: last year, the Eldridge Street Synagogue commissioned Kiki Smith to design its massive stained-glass east window. This time, however, the art in question -- paintings and photographs of nudes, a sculpture of a couple having sex, and altered adult magazine covers -- is a bit more scandalous.

"Overall the real problem is that the Orthodox community really does not like any kind of display of nudity whatsoever," LaViola told ARTINFO. "They have been here for a long time, and the relative newcomers who are starting to open up in the area are unsettling them a little bit."

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Paul Brainard's "Too Old to Die Young," 2011

/ Coutesy Allegra LaViola Gallery, New York

Before the opening, LaViola posted a sign in front of the gallery alerting parents that the exhibition was not suitable for children. But members of the Orthodox community have been particularly offended by the window display, which includes a painting by Paul Brainard of a naked woman surrounded by pizza slices and another nude leaping through a field by Alison Blickle. While LaViola contends that the images are "nothing more explicit than you would see on a magazine stand," neighbors argue they are too explicit for a gallery located just down the street from a boys' Yeshiva. LaViola said that although many boys pass the gallery on their way to school, she had never seen anyone stop outside until Wednesday, when two boys ran up, pointed, and banged on the glass windows.

The gallery has been fielding phone calls all week from angry neighbors, including the local rabbi, who asked LaViola to put up a curtain to cover the offending paintings. She then began getting visits from the police who were called on obscenity complaints, but they "have been quite supportive," said LaViola, who added that the officers apologetically explained that they are obligated to respond to any calls they receive. The dealer declined neighbors' requests to reorganize the exhibition, she said, because she had already intentionally hung the front with tamer works. "I didn't want anyone who came up to the window to see a giant ejaculating penis," she explained. Now, far from giving into the neighbors' demands, LaViola has extended the show through March 18. "I have to imagine that this is not the end of it," she said.

The "Pornucopia" controversy is the latest instance of a surprising rash of anti-nude sentiment in New York City. On March 6, "The People's Court" ruled against photographer Rafael Fuchs in his dispute with Bushwick resident Marie Nazaire, who destroyed a photomontage of nude women he had put on display in her apartment building's lobby. (The judge argued that Fuchs, who had been seeking compensation for the photos, could not prove their monetary value.) Earlier this month, New York City Congressman Anthony Weiner tried to get rid of a 100-year-old statue, "The Triumph of Civic Virtue," which stands outside Queen's Borough Hall, by selling it off on Craigslist. He asserted that the sculpture, which depicts a nude man standing atop two crouching women, was sexist and offensive.

While LaViola considers her predicament to be connected more to the particular dynamics of her neighborhood than to a larger outbreak of New York prudishness, she acknowledged that these sorts of cultural clashes are often a byproduct of the diversity of the city. "At the same time that I feel guilty and don't want to corrupt anybody's youth, I also felt quite angry at these people because of the way that they were trying to threaten me into closing off the gallery," she said. "They talked to me about being a part of the community, but they don't want me to be part of their community. Their community is set up from to be separate from the world. But at the same time, they live in New York City. They can't be entirely isolated."

-Julia Halperin, ARTINFO

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