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Monday, June 8, 2015

After Art Show Cancellation, a Defiant Jeremy Novy Moves On

Posted By on Mon, Jun 8, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge JONATHAN CURIEL
  • Jonathan Curiel

One by one, people trickled into the salon called Every 6 Weeks and found Jeremy Novy's hand. They shook it with gusto and he shook it back and hugged them. "Congratulations," many of them said. For one night, the Castro salon became an art gallery, and it was just the way that Novy envisioned, with people drinking wine, rubbing shoulders with other art-goers, and taking in Novy's newest art series, Phone Sex = Safe Sex.

Except the June 5 opening was supposed to be a few blocks away, at Magnet, the prominent health-services facility that is also an art space. And the opening was supposed to be a prelude to a month-long exhibit that would mark a new triumph for Novy: A showing in the heart of the Castro, in a space run by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, that dovetailed with LGBT Pride Month.

click to enlarge JONATHAN CURIEL
  • Jonathan Curiel
Magnet canceled the exhibit after allegations emerged that Novy had beaten another man. Novy says the allegations are unfounded, though Novy's history includes other allegations of violence — which he says were also without merit. Novy is best known for his koi-fish stencils around the Castro, including the sidewalk in front of Every 6 Weeks. "Phone Sex = Safe Sex" features stencils of buff men (some with erections) advertising phone services that promise sexual fulfillment. The new work, a take-off of 1980s phone-sex ads, will be showcased at the SOMArts exhibit, "Making a Scene: 50 Years of Alternative Bay Area Spaces" (July 9-August 20).

SF Weekly spoke with Novy at the Every 6 Weeks opening, where — comparing himself to Banksy and Van Gogh — he says Magnet was "harassed" into the cancellation, and that the controversy is ultimately helping his career.

Is this opening bitter-sweet for you, since it was supposed to be at Magnet?

Magnet had to close the exhibit because people kept sending letters saying that I do not stand for the queer community, and that they were going to picket the event. So Magnet, unfortunately, had to cancel. They didn’t really want to. Last fall, my piece was the first piece that sold for the Art for AIDS art auction, and they requested me to submit my art to be in a Magnet show. I was selected, and they gave me Pride Month. At first they were ignoring all these accusations, but the letters kept coming, and after 15 days of the same shit, anybody’s going to be annoyed. That’s harassment — towards me, towards Magnet. They (my accusers) were the aggressive ones, not me. Their behavior and their actions were extremely aggressive, extremely violent, when they were trying to say that I was a violent person, that I’m the aggressive one. In the whole situation, I tried very hard not to be the aggressive one. I’m going to keep doing my art, and keep doing exhibits.

What about the complaints about you? Doesn't that detract from the night's opening?

That has nothing to do with my art. If you want to talk about accusations, there’s a movie put out by the BBC that has accusations that Banksy put someone in a coma, and this person has recently since died. So if you want to talk about accusations, of violence and all these things, there’s a long history of artists who do have mental diseases, do have social interaction problems, including Van Gogh who chopped off his ear and never sold a piece of art in his lifetime. People didn’t even think of his work as art. To this day we honor him and applaud him, but when he was alive, people were doing the same things to him that people are doing to me. It’s realizing your place in history, and that you’re a part of it.

click to enlarge JONATHAN CURIEL
  • Jonathan Curiel
SF Weekly: Isn't the controversy good for you? Your work is getting more attention.

It’s definitely a mixed thing. But in one’s career, we’re all going to come up against opposition or people who don’t like our art or don’t like our career or are jealous of us or are envious of us, or loathe us, or whatever it is. It’s just learning how to use that in a more positive way. Everyone does it — taking this press you are given. Even the government is sometimes doing it, using these fear tactics and swinging it in a certain way to make it work for them.

Where does this new work fit into the rest of your work, including the koi fish that you are best-known for?

This is more important than my koi fish, I tell you. My koi fish are what sell. This is queer imagery on the street that doesn’t exist. The street-art community is a very heterosexual male-dominated world. It’s also very misogynist. They don’t like women. So to be queer and put images out there is completely wrong. We have street artists making complete female imagery, and my exhibit is the exact opposite of a very well-known stencil artist in New York who has done Oriental love hotlines for prostitutes and these other stencils that have depictions of females as sexually objectified. My work sexually objectifies men. But they have much deeper meaning — if it wasn’t for phone-sex hotlines, none of our queer zines or queer pornographic magazines would have been published (in the 1980s). It was people paying for their phone-sex ads to be in the back of the newspapers that covered the printing costs. At the time, you couldn’t go to Miller or Budweiser or Gun Oil Lube and ask them to support the publications. Also, the AIDS epidemic was happening, and people were afraid to go out to supermarkets and other places, not knowing how AIDS was transmitted. So phone sex took off as a form of safe sex during that time period. I went through old magazine published in the 1980s, and these are specific gay pornographic magazines, and these queer literature zines.

click to enlarge JONATHAN CURIEL
  • Jonathan Curiel
Will you put some of these works in the street?

I have to watch out if I do things on the street. I get permission nowadays. And it used to be where I could enjoy experimentation and put work on the street. A lot of other artists were putting art in the street. Until more recent years, when everything has moved toward commercialism instead of experimentation and art for art’s sake. Not it’s “art” for art’s sake, but for super consumerism. For these murals and exhibits, like Juxtapoz magazine-type commercialism. It’s really supposed to be from the street. That’s why I use these old and aged boards that have graffiti and street art underneath. So it’s like I took a piece of the street and hung it onto the gallery. Instead of removing it and putting it on a canvas. When Basquiat and Keith Haring started getting commissions, they started to move their work onto canvases. In Basquiat’s case, I felt that his found objects that he found on the street that he painted on were much more beautiful than his canvases, which became staticky in a way. I find things that are aged and broken seem to be less staticky.

Your work will appear at SOMArts center. Is that an outgrowth of the Magnet cancellation?

They requested I be a part of it after finding out what had happened, and knowing what my art’s about. For that exhibit, I’m re-wiring an old phone right now, so I can plug in my iPod. So when you pick up the phone, you’ll hear the phone-sex ads while staring at my artwork. You’ll get some words with the visual. It’s a thing I haven’t done before. But I found you can hack old phones.

What response have you gotten to your new work ahead of tonight's opening?

I’ve gotten positive responses. I’ve shown it online to different artist friends, a few works have sold already and I’ve shipped them out. Different versions of the work here. When I have other erotic artists admiring my erotic art, it’s definitely something enjoy. It feels like I’m accepted into my community and have made it.

When we wrote about you in 2011, Jim Provenzano, an arts editor with the Bay Area Reporter, said you had threatened him. This isn't a pattern with you?

The last time you wrote about me, Jim Provenzano was trying to have my exhibit closed, and my National Endowment for the Arts grant taken away, during the month of Pride. It was a long proceeding, going to court, and it set me up and prepared me for what’s ahead, and that I’m going to come up against other people who think they can control the art world and are not really a part of it.

These days you aren't living in San Francisco but Guerneville, on the Russian River. What was behind the move?

I left last July for New Orleans, and got back in January and moved up to Guerneville. I was working in New Orleans, staying away from this person who’s opposed by me. And doing my own thing. But I had to come back. I had murals and commissions. I had 2175 Market Street, a luxury condo building that wanted me to do a mural there in the lobby, along with several other artists, and that’s why I came back. I find Guerneville much more relaxing. I can breathe. I don’t get sucked into the city drama so much. And when I go home at night, I know I’m just going to hear an owl instead of construction and horns and crazy people on the street, and I like that. 

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