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McColl Center Tackles House Bill 2 With An Art Exhibit - Where Else? - In The Bathrooms

A photograph by artist Raymond Grubb displayed as a part of his installation 'Private Space' at the McColl Center
Courtesy of Raymond Grubb
A photograph by artist Raymond Grubb displayed as a part of his installation 'Private Space' at the McColl Center


It all started ahead of the 2016 Charlotte Pride Parade and Festival in late August. Artist Jason Watson, formerly an artist in residence at the McColl Center for Art and Innovation, had an idea. He knew parade participants would be lining up in front of the McColl center in uptown Charlotte, and that participants would likely need safe restrooms to use.

“Why not open the McColl Center so that people can use the restrooms, which they’ll need and want to do on the morning of the pride parade,” he said in an interview with WFAE, “and let’s go one further, and do an art installation - artists responding the HB2. And rather than in the large gallery space, in the restrooms themselves.”

Over the next several weeks, Watson invited seven former-artists in residences of the McColl Center to participate in the exhibition. Each was assigned a single-stall bathroom in the building to transform into an art installation, thus creating the new exhibit ‘Open Occupancy -- Artists Respond to HB2.’

The exhibit is overtly political, and it’s an ambitious effort, considering how easy it is for political art to fall flat. At its best, political art will use satire or words and imagery that disturb, or sometimes amuse in way that sticks. At its worst, political art is propaganda.

This exhibit lands somewhere in the middle with a response that’s sometimes subtle, sometimes playful, and sometimes a little muddy. Like an installation on the second floor titled ‘DancePartyPotty,’ by artist Andrea Vail. Curtains of silver mylar hang from the ceiling and drape from the overhead lights. A disco ball hangs over a full-length mirror, and viewers are encouraged to play music from an interactive playlist and have a dance party.

“It’s all about individual self-expression,” says Armando Bellmas with the McColl Center, as he flips the disco ball switch and casts the room in spinning disco lights.

It’s a fun installation, but feels like a stretch to call it a response to recent legislation. Then again, maybe if state Republican lawmakers came here and grooved out to some Donna Summer, they might have a change of heart. Who’s to say?

A more traditional installation is up a flight of stairs on the third floor.In this bathroom - a series of framed photographs depict faceless torsos, their pants unzipped, or their skirts raised. But don’t worry, there’s no human genitalia there. Instead variations of flora. Like a bouquet of flowers, or green leaves. Sometimes a tree branch - wood - I guess you’d say. The installation is titled Private Space, by artist Raymond Grubb. It delivers a sly answer to that provocative question, just what might be behind those zippers and under those skirts? It’s sure to get a chuckle.

The bathroom next door holds the most provocative installation of the exhibit. Inside this bathroom, a wooden chair and a side table invites you to sit and listen to an audio recording of an eerie voice addressing his transgender child.

“Remember this my sweet baby boy girl,” the recording begins, “your freedom is essential. And the most comfortably free and naked mother-[explicative] in the room is the most powerful one. I say be generous.”

The work is titled Salt Daddy, written and performed by artist John W. Love Jr. The voice instructs the child to go ahead, display what’s between his or her legs. Let society look all it wants, because it does seem obsessed with looking.

The message is unsettling and slightly amusing. The clear and focused concept makes it a strong work of political art.

The exhibit runs through September 10 at the McColl Center. And yes, if you need to use the restroom while viewing it, that’s allowed. The bathrooms are gender-neutral.

Correction: an earlier version of this story included a misspelling of artist Andrea Vail's name, and incorrectly described the installation's playlist as curated.

Copyright 2016 WFAE

WFAE's Nick de la Canal can be heard on public radio airwaves across the Charlotte region, bringing listeners the latest in local and regional news updates. He's been a part of the WFAE newsroom since 2013, when he began as an intern. His reporting helped the station earn an Edward R. Murrow award for breaking news coverage following the Keith Scott shooting and protests in September 2016. More recently, he's been reporting on food, culture, transportation, immigration, and even the paranormal on the FAQ City podcast. He grew up in Charlotte, graduated from Myers Park High, and received his degree in journalism from Emerson College in Boston. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal
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