Anatomy of an art controversy: Mike Lroy’s “Don’t Shoot”

The absurdity of reducing a painting to the fact that it offends cops.

  Mike Lroy's "Don't Shoot," on display at the Central Library.

Mike Lroy's "Don't Shoot," on display at the Central Library.

Art doesn't usually inspire all that much fervor in Madison media unless there some type of “controversy" associated with it. Sure, touring exhibitions at MMoCA and the Chazen, and smaller local art shows, get some press in local publications, but the discussion tends to be sober and even-keeled. When somebody raises an objection to a piece of artwork, though, it oftentimes makes for irresistible media fodder.

It's a dynamic typical to most places. But rarely does local art get covered as intensely as a provocative new work was a couple of weeks ago.

"Don't Shoot" is a new painting by Mike Lroy. He's a 22-year-old Madison-based artist who works on murals with The ArtWrite Collective, which seeks to build community and opportunities for youth through art. He made his local gallery debut last summer in a one-night show at the old offices of 100state, with which Lroy is an artist-in-residence through its 100arts program.

The painting was installed at Madison Central Library on April 28 through its Bubbler program. A temporary exhibition on the first floor features works by all three current 100state artists-in-residence. Situated on the wall adjoining West Mifflin Street that is next to a sitting and computer area, "Don't Shoot" is located closest to the library's main entrance, just past the staircase to the second floor. Its big public opening was to be on the evening of Friday, May 1, the spring edition of Gallery Night.

Quite large in size, "Don't Shoot" was created with acrylic and spray paint on canvas. Built upon a bold cardinal background that's somewhere between the color of fresh blood and Badger red, it features a trio of police officers decked out in riot gear, two of whom are wielding what look like tactical shotguns and the other a plastic shield, all facing towards a young African American child who is pointing a Super Soaker-style water gun. The cops are presented in a Banksy-style black-and-white stencil form, while the kid is painted in color.

Citing the issue of racial disparities and police-involved killings faced by black communities, including in Madison, Lroy's description for "Don't Shoot" offers a pair of objectives. He writes: “For those who have had the privilege of ignoring these gross injustices, I hope to startle, shock, and interrupt your reality. By visually representing the militarization of police through a painting, one cannot keep scrolling through a timeline or find another news station to watch; I will not allow this reality to escape without stirring emotion and provoking reflection. My second aim is to empower black individuals who are feeling angry, forgotten, and demonized by the mainstream narrative."

Lroy goes on to encourage viewers of "Don't Shoot" to ponder and converse about the social issues the painting seeks to critique.

When it comes to his intentions, "Don't Shoot" certainly did interrupt the reality of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the largest police union in the state. The painting's juxtaposition of kid and cops inspired the organization to trigger a bonafide art controversy, which flared up and then receded within a couple of days' time. It was a ready demonstration of the enduring willingness by police unions to assert a single-minded perspective.

On the morning of May 1, the WPPA and its executive director Jim Palmer released a statement about "Don't Shoot." Co-signed by the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, it was titled “Police Groups Issue Statement in Response to Anti-Cop Public Library Display." Basically, the unions took exception to the depiction of the officers in the painting, and criticized the library system for exhibiting it. 

The statement began: “Although law enforcement officers have the utmost respect for the value of artistic expression and free speech, we are deeply troubled by the Madison Public Library's current display. While we appreciate that the anti-law enforcement sentiment expressed in this piece represents the feelings of some, this 'stormtrooper' portrayal of police officers who appear to threaten a small child only serves to advance patently negative law enforcement stereotypes at the expense of the important and selfless jobs that our dedicated officers perform."

It went on to chastise the library's display as an “ill-conceived promotion" and the painting itself as presenting a “biased and hostile view."

However, the WPPA and MPPOA did not urge or suggest the removal of "Don't Shoot" from display, indicating that would be an inappropriate response to Lroy's free expression. The statement continued: “We are, however, exercising that liberty in our own right by voicing the collective reaction of Madison's officers who find this publicly-sponsored art display as offensive and indicative of terribly poor judgment. This is a sensitive time in our community, and the library's decision to showcase this piece in such a one-sided manner is a disturbing endorsement of an inflammatory perspective."

Under attack

The sensitivity this statement references is the death of Tony Robinson, an unarmed, biracial 19-year-old who was shot and killed by a Madison police officer in a Williamson Street apartment entrance on March 6. Protests commenced almost immediately, and Madison was swept up into the ongoing national furor over African Americans getting killed by police officers and the way those deaths are treated in the criminal justice system.

In terms of timing, this statement was issued a couple of weeks after Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne stated that he would give a two-day notice before announcing whether or not he would bring any charges against Officer Matt Kenny in the Robinson shooting. It would be almost another two weeks before that would happen, but on May 12, the DA announced that no charges were forthcoming.

One would expect a police union to not devote significant (or really any) attention to a local art scene. Indeed, the WPPA hasn't issued a press release about a work of art before, at least not over the last decade. To do so would seem to be an absurdity, a waste of energy for a group that would seemingly have a more tangible set of priorities. Then again, maybe that's changing: This week, a New York City police union is mad about an art installation in Queens, while outrage from conservative pundits (along with Jim Palmer) has just led to the removal of a mural at Marquette University.

It's evident that the the statement on "Don't Shoot" does fit into a pattern of subject matter that the group has regularly emphasized so far in 2015. Aside from announcements about union business, the WPPA has focused on updates about its work on the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Museum of Valor along with controversy over police shootings, including the one killing Tony Robinson. Both priorities speak to how the WPPA is defending its membership's profession.

It started out the year by publishing an essay, “ Why Be a Cop?," by MPPOA president Dan Frei. “These days it isn't hard to feel like we are under attack," it begins, referencing the political punching-bag status of Wisconsin's public employees in the Scott Walker era. The piece goes on to complain about media coverage of law enforcement, particularly in the context of police militarization and use-of-force policies, and raise concern about how the public and politicians express their support when officers are attacked in the line of duty.

Frei's central argument: The public does not comprehend the job tasked to law enforcement officers, and because of this, certain critics of police “are blindly placing people in a can't-win situation." His concluding point is one urging perseverance, but it's couched in quite palpable levels of defensiveness. Police officers, or at least the unions that represent them, feel increasingly beset as growing segments of the public are becoming more vocal about trends in law enforcement that they deem threatening to their communities.

More relevant than any lamentation about being misunderstood, though, is the police union's own public opinion research. In the WPPA Public Perception Study released this spring, polling conducted by St. Norbert College found that 58% of respondents strongly approved of their community's police force and 31% somewhat approved, while 9% strongly or somewhat disapproved. However, there are significant differences when it comes to community size and race/ethnicity, with those who live in larger cities and don't identify as white being less enthusiastic in their approval for their local police.

Broadly speaking, there is widespread support for law enforcement in Wisconsin, but those numbers slip in cities with a population larger than 150,000 (i.e., Milwaukee and Madison) and among racial minorities. That's exactly what one might expect given the pattern and terms of debate over police shootings. These differences are also reflected in the message and exhibition of "Don't Shoot," as Lroy has said the Tony Robinson shooting served as an artistic impetus.

Blanket coverage

Madison's three TV newsrooms jumped on the WPPA's May 1 statement about "Don't Shoot," reducing this piece of art to a facile “controversy." Their interest may have merely been spurred by an attractive hook on a slow news Friday. After all, this was a public rebuke, albeit one triggered simply by a brief press release.

In a report by WISC that started out with an image of Don't Shoot captioned “controversial art," the station spoke with Lroy, who provided his motivations for creating the painting. Also interviewed was Greg Mickells, the director of the Madison Public Library. He explained how the painting came to be displayed, that it does not conflict with library policies, and noted plans to offer the WPPA a chance to respond with its own statement, to be displayed in the exhibition alongside Lroy's written description. Finally, Jim Palmer was interviewed, reiterating his position that the library's display of the painting was an inflammatory act.

A report by WMTV, also taking the “controversial art" angle, featured the same three sources and covered similar ground. As for the report by WKOW, it was alternately labeled as a “Painting Controversy" and “Painting Causes Controversy," and likewise quoted Lroy, Mickells and Palmer.

All three aired on May 1.

  A screenshot of WMTV's coverage of "Don't Shoot."

A screenshot of WMTV's coverage of "Don't Shoot."

That day's coverage of "Don't Shoot" didn't stop with Madison's local TV stations, though. Madison.com offered a basic report. The story was also picked up by Wisconsin Radio Network, as well as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which oddly stated that Madison protests over the Tony Robinson shooting were “largely peaceful."

The wording is odd because, in fact, protests have simply been “peaceful." Arrests made have been of those who have blocked roads peacefully in classic acts of civil disobedience. As a contrast, the gatherings in downtown Madison the night the Wisconsin men's basketball team defeated the Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four were characterized as largely well behaved, particularly compared to thescene on the State Street in Lexington. But there was a “very small fire" set during the celebrations on Madison's State Street, per the MPD. Here's a related disparity in media coverage, one deserving its own exploration.

Right Wisconsin, the conservative publication owned by the Journal Sentinel's parent company, also chimed in. Its brief blog post predictably invoked the liberal “Madison" boogeyman in claiming "Don't Shoot" reflects “how hostile the public has turned on police in America."

The story about L'Roy's painting was also picked up on wire services, and run by the Chicago Tribune and Minneapolis Star Tribune, among many more publications around the nation. Various TV and radio stations in other Wisconsin markets picked up the story themselves, running wire copy or content from their Madison affiliates.

The media cycle was rapid. This most one-day story was limited to May 1, with a couple of stragglers following over that weekend. "Don't Shoot" was a curiosity, but the WPPA's objections to it were picked up broadly because of the ongoing national discussion over police shootings. That Friday, after all, came at the tail end of a week of deep unrest in Baltimore, and was the day that six of that city's police officers were charged in the death of Freddie Gray.

Controversial art

Provocation is central pillar of visual art and the market that sustains its prominence in contemporary culture. It has been an entrenched value for well over a century, and indeed long, long before that too. There's a well-worn canon of iconic “controversial" works that have been created by mostly European and American artists.

Over recent decades, the attention driven by controversial art has become an arms race of shock, with a familiar cadre of celebrity artists consuming and combusting the oxygen of attention. Think Marina Abramovic, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and so on. One piece of contemporary art that's among the best known in terms of the controversy defining it is "Piss Christ," a 1987 photo by Andres Serrano. Given that Serrano's work was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, his creation was fully enveloped in the maelstrom of the culture wars during the late 1980s and '90s, and has remained an object of ire in certain quarters ever since.

In Madison, art controversies mirror the idiosyncrasies of the broader city, and its broader impulses to be deliberative, communitarian and inoffensive. That means public artwork is most often the subject of disagreement in town, over both content and disposition. Ink and pixels flow forth regularly as such dustups arise.

In recent years, perhaps the best-known case of art-related controversy in Madison is the decade-long kvetching over "Nail's Tales," a sculpture by Donald Lipski. Commissioned by the UW Athletic Department, this obelisk outside Camp Randall made its debut in 2005, and has ever since been compared to a pile of rodent droppings and a plethora of phallic references. Its background is memorably explored in “ The story behind the dick-shaped sculpture at Camp Randall Stadium," published in 2014 by The Badger Herald.

Community discussions about public art in Madison, mostly in the form of sculptures situated outdoors, go back decades. In the mid '80s, there was the Olin Terrace mural by Richard Haas. Once overlooking Law Park, it's now obscured by the concrete pillars framing the John Nolen Drive underpass at Monona Terrace. (And, yes, that leads to the all-out rhetorical warfare that's endemic to the architectural design process in the city.)

Controversies over specific works of art, typically gallery-style pieces, have been more overtly political, in an ideological sense. A few years ago, an outspoken Republican state representative objected to a showcase of Act 10-related protest paraphernalia – think posters, banners, and puppets—apparently because it had been endorsed by UW-Extension's School for Workers. In 2010, there were a few complaints at the UW's Chazen Museum of Art about "A Rush of Blood To The Head," an anthropomorphized statue (of kissing goats with human male genitalia) created by Beth Cavener Stichter. And in 2009, a photo of a young Hmong child wearing a bandana and making a sideways peace sign was displayed in an exhibition at the Madison Municipal Building in a show sponsored by the city's arts program; this generated two complaints over a perceived “gang sign" and spurred discussion about potentially removing it.

So this latest round of chatter over Mike Lroy's "Don't Shoot" is nothing new. But the spike of media attention the painting received does stand out given the artist's overt intention to address a high-profile national issue.

Triggering a discussion

In a 2010 essay in Isthmus about "A Rush Of Blood To The Head," Madison journalist Bill Lueders shared his thoughts on the hircine sculpture. Declaring surprise over what he considered to the Chazen's boldness in acquiring and displaying the piece, he noted that the museum was well aware of the controversy it could invite.

Lueders concluded by considering “what reaction to this sculpture says about us," and compared our culture's reticence over depictions of sexuality to its deep acceptance of gory violence, whether it's in the form of art photography or pulpy TV shows and movies. He wrote: “The Chazen is doing something remarkable, and indisputably courageous. It is presenting art that does what art is supposed to—get people to think."

Mike Lroy's creation of "Don't Shoot," and the Madison Public Library in turn by displaying it, hoped to instigate viewers to think about the painting and its message. Whatever impact that brief spate of media coverage may have generated, it wouldn't have happened without the active prodding of Jim Palmer and the WPPA.

The union, which maintains an active presence on its institutional Facebook account, made sure to post its complaint about "Don't Shoot," along with a bit of press coverage. One post pointed to the WISC-TV story, while the other other highlighted the Chicago Tribune hit. But it was a photo posted by the WPPA the next day that generated the most expansive discussion, one a couple of steps more engaging than one typically sees on Facebook.

The photo was a direct counterpoint to "Don't Shoot," depicting a uniformed police officer (sans riot gear) bending down to speak with an African American child. Its caption offers a statistic regarding the percentage of officer interactions that result in a proven complaint.

Most of the discussion centered on the figure provided by the WPPA and the broader racial dynamics surrounding the relationships police forces can have with their communities. However, there was some dialogue over the painting at the Central Library and the police unions' objection to it.

One person addressing the matter was Kristin Forde. She was featured in a Madison Magazine story that explored how four different Madisonians were affected by Tony Robinson's death. It was part of that publication's May cover story package that explored the aftermath of the shooting.

Among other statements, Forde had this to tell the WPPA about its objections to "Don't Shoot": “I appreciate that you did not ask the library to take it down. It was implied however, that you would have preferred that the library reject the piece because it does not help build trust. What I am saying is that voicing your disapproval contributes to the distrust. Actually building trust will require hearing, understanding and accepting the outrage that exists among many of your constituents right now. We cannot move forward when there are efforts to discourage expressions of distrust. I understand it is in your interest to promote positive images of your officers. I am saying that perhaps you should consider a different approach."

But the statements made by Jim Palmer to media about "Don't Shoot" suggest that actually listening to painful rebukes from the community, no matter how seriously one is willing to consider them, is not a priority for the WPPA.

Whatever one thinks about the artistic value of "Don't Shoot," whether it be in terms of its form or content, it's clear that Mike Lroy succeeded in his intention to stimulate discomfort among those who ignore or reject the criticisms of police violence. The WPPA press release scolding the painting triggered a paroxysm of media attention that ensured many more people would see it, even if only momentarily on their TV or computer screens, than likely would have otherwise.

Lroy told WISC that he has two more paintings on the way that are similar in theme to "Don't Shoot." One is titled " Jasmine's World," and is a stylized simulacrum of "Christina's World," a seminal 1948 work by Andrew Wyeth on display at the MoMA in New York. In Lroy's version, the semi-prone woman struggling towards the horizon is African American, with the object of her attention being a screaming black child getting dragged away by a trio of stenciled police officers. The other is named "Hands Up!" and in turn visually samples Keith Haring and his archetypal dancing figures. In this pastiche, one brown and one black dancer are raising their arms as a lone cop (again, in stencil) points his firearm in their direction.

Whether or not the WPPA or other detractors of Lroy's art help publicize these paintings too remains to be seen.

The WPPA succeeded in getting its point of view included the exhibition of "Don't Shoot," as was offered by library administration. On May 3, less than 48 hours after the story was covered on local TV, a counterpoint was already on display next to the painting and Lroy's description. It was simply an adapted version of the original press release that captured the media's attention in the first place.

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