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  1. Visual Arts

St. Petersburg art show to feature hacked nude celebrity photos

Actor Jennifer Lawrence is one of many celebrities whose nude photos of themselves were accessed by a hacker.
Actor Jennifer Lawrence is one of many celebrities whose nude photos of themselves were accessed by a hacker.
Published Sep. 6, 2014

St. Petersburg is getting national attention for an art exhibition planned to open Oct. 30 — and it won't feature the Old Masters.

Cory Allen Contemporary Art, a new gallery in the Warehouse Arts District at 2121 Second Ave. S, has announced plans for a show featuring Los Angeles artist XVALA 's prints on canvas of recently hacked nude photographs of Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence and actor-model Kate Upton, among others. The show will likely contain 20 to 24 works.

That they would debut in St. Petersburg is a surprise.

Allen recently moved to the city from Oklahoma, where he met Jeff Hamilton, or XVALA, while collaborating on a project, he said, and has since become his representative. Allen's gallery, described as "the world's first public relations gallery," had one exhibition after opening in May but he said the space is under renovation for the October opening.

"I was looking for a place in Miami about three years ago," he said, "but I visited St. Petersburg and wanted to be part of something growing. I wanted to be part of this community."

But is this all just a publicity grab? The planned show is generating criticism for being sensationalist and exploitative.

"That is not our goal. This is a commentary on who we are today," said Allen, 38. "It's a dialogue about stolen property and privacy, and (in the Internet world), how much we give and how much it takes."

The works are part of a seven-year series by XVALA. The portfolio, named "Fear Google," has appropriated images of celebrities, such as Britney Spears and Scarlett Johansson, to illustrate his conceptual message seen in galleries in California and as a street artist.

"What if these were you or me?" Allen said. "Would there be the same reaction? These incidents are about celebrities, mostly women and always sex. It's a commentary on who we are today."

His point is that naked everyday people don't get nearly the same attention as naked famous people (not a revelation). The bigger point, Allen said, is that art using provocative images such as these make art part of the mainstream conversation. We don't shy away from such provocation in music and film in our daily discourses, nor should we in art.

In a broader way, our ambivalence and aversion to such private appropriations have a history. Through the Renaissance, nudity in art was revered. But one can argue that these hacked photographs, even transformed by an artistic process, aren't nudes but images of naked women.

That distinction, from an artistic standpoint, is important. Here's what the late Lord Kenneth Clark, one of the most respected art historians of the 20th century, wrote: "To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word 'nude,' on the other hand, in educated usage, carries no uncomfortable undertone."

I think we can all agree that by this definition, they're naked.

So this is art with a social message, a caveat emptor for people naive enough to think that anything posted online is anything but fair game. And does anyone believe that in a world in which millions of Target customers can be hacked, one's personal account is safe?

The bigger question is fairness: Just because an artist can ambush someone, should he? Is an artist held to a higher standard than the paparazzi or voyeuristic Web trollers? Andy Warhol made a lot of money with his "Death and Disaster" series of screen prints that included lurid scenes of car accidents and suicides. Those victims didn't give permission, either.

Philosophically, nothing is out of bounds in art anymore. Marcel Duchamp established that benchmark in 1917 when he entered a urinal in an art show. It might be lousy, irritating or offensive, but intent establishes its categorization and the intent of these works is art.

XVALA does have a bit of a track in unusual art. In another series, he created a group of small action figure-style sculptures of Silicon Valley leaders such as Steve Jobs from their collected trash, mixed with resin and plastic porcelain.

Allen said he doesn't anticipate a lawsuit, but representatives of Lawrence and Upton have vowed legal action against anyone who publishes or distributes the photos.

"We'll deal with that if it comes," Allen said. "We're not trying to do anything illegal, not posting or sharing or leaking. It was all found on Google. We don't condone hacking. We have a message and sometimes you have to go to the extreme to get people to see it."

Contact Lennie Bennett at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

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