Eve, the first woman, stands nude and alone in the vacant storefront of 425 7th St. NW. Her frame is made of chicken wire, and her skin is made of clay, which has cracked in coarse faults across her voluptuous white figure. Through the breaks in her belly, the light of a television flickers just beneath her nipple, framed from below by her dense patch of pubic hair. Eve is holding gilded thorns and walking in wood ash. Beside her on the floor sits a half-eaten clay apple; at its core, an orange light bulb blinks nervously.
The ancient storefront smells sharply of mold. Eve occupies the vitrine to the right of the entry as you look in. Adam was supposed to stand in the left window to complete an installation called Children of the Serpent Dreaming, by Charles Flickinger, a sculptor who teaches at the Corcoran School of Art. But Adam hasn’t arrived because Flickinger never got to make him. He never really got to finish Eve, either.
Sometime shortly after Flickinger was putting some final touches on Eve in the wee hours of Nov. 10, the owner of the building, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), rolled down the storefront’s steel door and locked it tight, with no explanation to Flickinger. He came back the next day but couldn’t get in. It took him a couple of days to get an answer as to why the door had been shut; by week’s end, he learned that the GSA’s special assistant for regional coordination, Jack Finberg, had ordered the door closed to hide the sculpture’s graphic nudity. Suddenly, Flickinger thought he had found himself at the front end of a First Amendment case against government art censorship. “They wanted the piece out of there,” he says.
Eve is still inside, but the only way to see her from the sidewalk is through a small hole cut into the steel door. In a tidy bit of irony, Flickinger says the sculpture concerns the human body as an object of shameamong the first moral lessons to pop out of the Genesis story. But by making her visible only through a slot in the door, he scoffs, “they’ve turned her into a peep show.”
It took God about a week to create Eve; it took Flickinger about a month and a half, and about $1,000 worth of materials. He started working on the piece in October as part of the annual Arts on Foot event sponsored by the Pennsylvania Quarter Neighborhood Association, having previewed his idea with Matt Radford, a program director for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Radford had helped him secure the space from the GSA for the installation, and Flickinger had furnished the commission with a written statement, detailed drawings, and a maquette to show how the final product would look.
Like a lot of Flickinger’s earlier work, the Eve sculpture is site-specificit was designed to stay up for a couple of months until the building went out to bid for renovationand it contemplates the relationship between human beings and their natural and artificial environments. “I didn’t want to make a story about Genesis,” says Flickinger, who could pass for a biblical character with his long ponytail and beard, sleepy eyes, and voice of utter calm. He says he wanted to do “more of a visual poem, a dreamscape, around this story, and [I] injected a fair amount of my own wishful thinking.”
Flickingerfamiliars call him “Flick”went to work on Eve mostly at night. In the storefront, in plain view of the street, he “met a lot of people and heard their stories,” including a woman from Israel who stopped to chat about Lilith, who, in Jewish mythology, was the evil first wife of Adam before Eve came along. He likes to work in public because the walk-by dialogue often helps shape his work.
First he built the armature, and then he applied the clay, covering up his work every night so it would stay damp and its surface wouldn’t crack until he was ready. Flickinger has worked a lot with metal, as in his sculpture Peacekeeper of 1989, a skeletal steel mermaid whose tail is like that of a bomb. But lately, he’s done a lot of naturalistic nudes in wood and clay. When he uses clay, he often lets the skin cracklike parched earthbut only once he’s all done.
The hair on Eve’s head came from a wig shop on E Street NW, and her pubic hair came from a source Flickinger won’t identify, except to say that “I’m a hairy person,” and that he was in a good position to harvest. It took him three days to put the hair on the sculpture, bit by bit, to achieve the “obsessive hyperrealistic representation” he was seeking. Once he finished the piece early that Tuesday morning, he left it uncovered to let it dry, took some photographs while it still had its sheen, and went home to the hills in Sperryville, Va.
Flickinger heard that the door had been closed before he saw it, from a friend who works as a deliveryman downtown. He immediately guessed there had been a complaint, he says: “They reacted so quickly.”
“I only found out belatedly that I’m the troublemaker,” says Jack Finberg on his car phone at rush hour two Fridays ago. “That’s the last thing in the world I would want to be accused of.”
Finberg didn’t know what he was looking at when he first walked by the storefront and saw Eve. To him, the piece looked like a department store mannequin that somebody had dragged out and dressed up as a joke. The D.C. arts commission had used the GSA’s storefront before, but nobody had told Finberg that Flickinger was planning an installation on the site, much less that it was to be an unusual nude sculpture. He told Radford to get the piece out of the window because, after all, the sign on the adjacent storefront says, “United States Federal PropertyUnauthorized Entry Liable to Prosecution.”
“It was just sitting there attracting a crowd; there’s no way to tell it’s sculpture,” he says. “I have no problem with it in contextbut it needs some context.” Notwithstanding the parade of sculptural nudes throughout official Washington, “it does not belong on federal space” as it stands, says Finberg.
As Flickinger’s go-between, Radford asked Finberg if there were any way to compromise rather than remove the sculpture. Finberg said Eve could stay if Flickinger put in a sign explaining what the sculpture was doing in the window. Flickinger decided at first that a sign would change the piece too much and told Radford that he would not change ita stance that he has since softened. Flickinger now says he is willing to amend the piece if it means the public will be able to see it.
But as of Monday of week, the situation remained stalled. Radford had left the country Dec. 3 for a long vacation, Flickinger had only Friday spoken with Finberg directly about opening the door again, and Eve had been sitting, locked away from her creator, for more than a month while Flickinger explored his legal options. Some of Flickinger’s students who are lawyers suggested to him that he had a First Amendment case. He turned to the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, which mostly makes referrals and is largely funded by the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanitiesand thus couldn’t really help him, because the case involved the commission and presented a potential conflict of interest. He then went to the American Civil Liberties Union, he says, and found its process slower than he would have liked”they take cases that they think have a chance of succeeding,” says Flickinger.
Then he contacted David Greene, an attorney at the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, in downtown D.C. Greene has tried to get the GSA to let Flickinger finish his piece and bring the episode to a conclusion. When Greene contacted Finberg late last week, Finberg once again expressed his willingness to compromise on the piece’s presentationbut said the GSA couldn’t open the door and let Flickinger finish his work because the building may be structurally unsound and somebody could get hurtboth inside and standing out on the street. “That’s a reasonable thing not to want,” Greene remarks.
But Finberg, it seems, is changing his story fast, having underestimated the backlash against his tastemaking decision. At first, he was adamant that the sculpture’s content was not fit for street-side viewing on government property, and the only way he would consider letting the public see it in situ was with an explanatory sign. But now, Finberg says that his “No. 1 concern” is safety. “It’s not the nudity of the thing, period,” he says.
Whether the government’s shutting Flickinger out creates a constitutional issue is hard to tell at this point. “There’s a possibility [that Finberg]’s trying to cover something up,” Greene says. “But if he is, it’s pretty minor.” It may be simply a failure of communication between Flickinger, the arts commission, and Finberg’s office at the GSA, as well as a breach of common courtesy in not giving the sculptor a straight answer and a chance to get his piece out of the storefront.
If nothing else, the attorney suggests, Flickinger has a contractual issue at stakethe arts commission may have violated an oral contract it had with the artist to show a piece of sculpture for which he invested himself accordingly. “Flick has a legitimate complaint,” Greene observes, “but I’m not sure it’s a constitutional complaint. We try to make sure that things that aren’t First Amendment cases don’t get cast as such.”
In the art-appreciation department, Children of the Serpent Dreaming has, unwittingly, changed into a dramatic performance piece and enlarged Flickinger’s point about flesh, shame, and original sin in ways he hadn’t scripted. Eve has been through all this before: God got mad at her and drove her out of the garden of Eden, and humankind has paid the pricemostly to the retail apparel industryever since. Now, a mid-level federal bureaucrat has been keeping her off 7th Street and trying to make an honest woman of her. But this time, it appears that shame has turned the tables on him, whether he gets his way or not. CP