Images (clockwise from upper left): Best In Show (1994); TABOO memorabilia; Confessions (1995); group portrait of the TABOO collective; Johnny Detroit's Brunch (1990); TABOO's Olympic T-Shirt (1996). Photos: Larry Jens Anderson.

A Remembrance of Things TABOO

by Larry Jens Anderson

TABOO was an accident. TABOO, the Atlanta artist collective, started with a group of artists who shared mutual respect for each other’s work but did not know each other. They met fortuitously at an opening and decided to get together to have some wine and discuss art. The gathering quickly disintegrated into a bitch session about the lack of edge in the Atlanta art scene. The eight artists present each talked about pieces of their own that were considered too taboo to show in Atlanta. 

It was 1987, a year when AIDS was a major topic of discussion, ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was in angry high gear on the political scene; it was President Reagan’s time in office; political correctness was the order of the day; the Christian right was feeling its power; and artists were suffering from put-downs by the NEA and Senator Jesse Helms. 

Each of those at this initial meeting was over 30 years old, an active working artist, and not shy. Rather than just bitch, they decided to do something about their complaint. 

A look at the calendar for 1988 revealed that Good Friday fell on April Fool’s day, on a full moon, in a leap year. The timing seemed right. They all realized nothing would happen without a space to show in, preferably free. King Thackston had a real estate friend who offered a space and they were set. Two of the artists decided the concept was too risky for their career and the remaining six began to plan. The decision was for each to invite another artist, doubling the number in the show. In addition to the work presented, the group added an element that would turn the opening into an event, something that became fundamental to the planning. The invitation requested attendees bring an object for the fetish pole. The overloaded fetish pole was given to a grateful Howard Finster.

The opening was a big success; several hundred came. Two comments in the guest book presented unexpected challenges: “What is TABOO going to do next?” and “This isn’t so taboo!”

TABOO as a noun, a group, was born. Until that time they were just a loosely organized group of professional artists putting on one exhibition of taboo work that challenged the system.

Over the years the group morphed into a curatorial, art producing, renegade but very professional group of four gay men: Larry Jens Anderson, David Fraley, King Thackston, and Michael Venezia. Each member had an active career, but the mindset that happened when all got together was unique. It included poking fun at art through irony, utilizing camp humor, prodding sociological phenomena, and encouraging many artists invited in to stretch.

There were only three TABOO rules. Make it an event! Always use some French in the artist’s statement. Only art that received unanimous votes from all four members got into any show.

In 1990, Good Friday fell on Friday the 13th, and the second exhibition, The Cross Show, was conceived. TABOO thought being crucified was a turn of bad luck. The three-day exhibition showed only work in the shape of a cross. Participation was open to any and all for a $15 entry fee. To enter the gallery, attendees had to walk under a ladder and were confronted by other bad luck omens. The Cross Show was a big success and TABOO was developing a reputation for producing challenging and entertaining exhibitions.

Johnny Detroit’s Brunch was a celebration of male proportions on the ten-year anniversary of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. It answered the challenge that we weren’t taboo enough. The idea came from a comment by Joeff Seagis during that first evening discussion, “Ever since Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party I’ve wanted to do Johnny Detroit’s Brunch.” In the politically correct atmosphere of the late ‘80’s, an all male exhibition was 100% wrong. Perfect!

A real challenge was finding a location for Johnny Detroit’s Brunch. No gallery or institution would touch a concept put together by 5 white guys (TABOO had shrunk). A friend of King’s was running Seven Stages, a theater in Little Five Points, Atlanta’s bohemian district, and leant their space to TABOO. The 34’ arrow shaped table had six male honorees on the arrowhead and 12 men down each side of the shaft. The men represented were chosen by each of the 30 artists: Jesus, Greg Louganis, Tarzan, The Three Stooges, Dali, and others were represented. The place settings were consistent in the number of pieces and size. The general assumption was that there would be plate after plate of penises, but the range of ideas went far beyond that. Johnny Detroit traveled to New Orleans and Asheville, then died from overwork.

TABOO began to be offered space--no money, but space. The Arts Exchange (in an old school building) offered their gallery space for December 1991. The look of the converted schoolroom inspired TABOO to limit the scale to 12”, to simulate classroom-sized artwork. Tiny Xmas Memories: nothing-over 12” came with real limitations: submissions over 12” would be cut down to size. Two pieces suffered this fate. After all, rules are rules!

For the 1992 Atlanta Arts Festival TABOO curated Angry Love, featuring art made when you are mad at love. This was their first nationally advertised exhibition. The festival theme was pushed by putting up four large-scale carnivalesque banners produced by the TABOO members, blinking lights, and a tent like entrance in vaginal pink.

In 1994 TABOO was again invited to participate in the Atlanta Arts Festival whose theme was “Money Changes Everything.” The result was multi media installation called Best of Show. The TABOO members decided that fame and money were intertwined. Their premise was the more famous the owner of any object, the higher the value. They created a fictitious gallery to sell rubber ducks whose ownership was by the likes of Mapplethorpe, Dali, Gandhi, and so on.

Next came an invitation from Chris Scoates, then the director of the Atlanta College of Art Gallery. I995 was height of trashy afternoon talk shows hosted by the likes of Jenny Jones, Oprah, and Jerry Springer. TABOO jumped on the bandwagon and created a show where the artists were juried in by the quality of their confessions. Creative Loafing, an Atlanta-based weekly newspaper, chose Confessions as the “Best Art Show of the Year.”

As the ’96 Olympics closed in, it became obvious that there was no exhibition of Atlanta artists planned for the Cultural Olympiad. Debra Wilbur, then the director of the Chastain Gallery, agreed this was not right. When she inquired what TABOO might do, Gone With the Wind: Fabrication and Denial of Southern Identity was the answer. The resulting exhibition included political, humorous, hard-hitting, beautiful, tender and angry art about the Southern experience. The opening was packed with attendees enjoying each other, the art, watermelon, RC Cola, Moon Pies, and bags of peanuts. The show garnered praise in New York’s Village Voice and was singled out as one of the best exhibitions of 1996, along with the Rings show at the High Museum of Art.

Vaknin/Swartz Gallery invited TABOO to do a December show. Testosterone: Christmas Balls was the first time the group curated in a commercial gallery. It included artists chosen from throughout the US.

For their last production, Requiem at The Nexus Arts Center in Atlanta, TABOO placed in an outdoor courtyard a hearse adorned with a large banner declaring it the “Pace Car For The Millennium.” Mozart’s Requiem played at full volume, the gallery entrance was draped in black, and the four members of TABOO were depicted as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It signaled TABOO’s end after 11 years and was a send-up of the ridiculousness of the fuss made over Y2K, the transition from 1999-2000. 

In more than a decade of working together, the members of TABOO created only one collective art piece, Best of Show for the 1994 Arts Festival of Atlanta. Most of their efforts were curatorial. But they also did interventions, lectures, performances, made TABOO ware, guest appearances, conceptual events, and supported individual members’ shows.

T-Shirts were the major fundraiser. Most corresponded to a show but others were specific to an event (interventions). White Guys Are Ethnic Too was created to wear to a grant seminar in the politically correct ‘90’s. For the Olympics, TABOO made four t-shirts that included TABOO with graphics of the Olympic rings and the phrase, Greek Active Artists. The biggest seller was Buy Art, Not Drugs. The Idea Sale t-shirt was created as an addendum to an ad selling ideas for artists suffering artist’s block that ran in Art Papers Magazine. The members had individual T’s for TABOO’s bowling challenge against the staff of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.

What is TABOO’s legacy? Passion for art was central. Camp humor, a gay sensibility that uses self-deprecation and irony to have fun with—and make fun of—very serious subjects was second nature to the four members. TABOO often pointed out the ridiculousness of sacred cows. And they were smart, avoiding the gratuitous (unless it was intentional). Art can be fun and serious at the same time.

The death of three of the members leaves a gap in the Atlanta art community. Their unrealized work is missed. Their input into boards and organizations is a big loss. And Larry Anderson misses laughing with his buddies when they were at their most wicked.

Larry Jens Anderson, who teaches at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus, is an artist whose work focuses on human rights issues concerning sexual orientation, the AIDS crisis, death, and religion.