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book excerpt + Plain Dealer column on my privates

American Ego, 1984, 15″ x 22″, – collage & foto Smith

(excerpt from “Stations of the Lost & Found” by Smith & Lady plus column by James Neff from 1984)

The pieces that got me my initial notoriety began late at night when I was drunk and wrapped my penis in small American flags, draped dead dried fish about and snapped Polaroids. I felt the penis went with the flag because of our American military might-makes-right philosophy, while the dried fish were a sly reference to the fish vagina smell of lore. I arranged twelve of the photos in a three by four grid, collaged the white areas around the Polaroids with torn strips of American flag, splattered on some fluorescent paint, glued a large dried fish and art glass scraps to it and titled itAmerican Ego.

Then I shot nude Polaroids of Amaya in an open shirt mom had made out of 48-star American flags. I arranged six of the photos into a cross, collaged the white area around the Polaroids with cut up bible verse, attached fringe to the bottom edges of the cross, pounded rusty nails into the photos, and titled it Cross Breeding.

Amaya was teaching art at CSU at the time, and John, a fellow instructor who had just begun, had brought the Peoples’ Art Show concept with him from Detroit. The idea, at least for the first few years, was no piece of art would be censored—the people could show whatever they wanted and everything submitted would be displayed. I contributed a couple interesting pieces of which I was proud but they weren’t shocking. John knew about my more controversial stuff from Amaya and told her he was hoping for something edgier to help jump start the show. Amaya passed the word to me so I entered the two genitalia American flag dead fish pieces.

Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist James Neff called me up and was initially quite hostile as he asked why I would do such a thing. I told Neff the art was a metaphor protesting America’s foreign policy. We’d just invaded Grenada illegally. I explained my “American Ego/American Eagle” pun. By the end of the conversation, Neff was quite friendly and wrote a wry, fairly nice half page column.

Shock art is a small percentage of what I do, especially anymore. I create stuff that’s odd, eccentric, weird, funny, beautiful, tender, political, social, serious or surreal—sometimes all at the same time

When Neff asked why I used nude male genitalia and my own at that, I joked I was cheap and easy and available at the time but mainly it was out of a sense of fairness. Respectable art and unrespectable advertising have always used naked women liberally. I dearly love naked women, often use them in collages. But I’ve also this large fairness complex so to balance society’s and my own nude female use, I used naked male me.

There’s nothing wrong with shock. The scoundrel-sage Gurdjieff said people are asleep and often must be shocked awake to jumpstart their souls. And Mae West said, “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.” There are an endless number of paths to the same place. Everybody thinks it has to be A or B, but in reality it’s A and Z and everything in between. It comes back to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: it’s all true all at the same time. It’s only lack of vision that reduces life and art to dichotomies.

Here is Neff’s column.

Must Be Profound
James Neff
The Plain Dealer
December 3, 1984

Gracing our city are many profound examples of modern art. I know they must be profound because I do not understand them.

Take, for example, Isamu Noguchi’s sculpture “Portal” at the Justice Center. “Portal” still befuddles some citizens. It looks like a piece of a giant pretzel. The modern sculpture weighs 15 tons, stands 36 feet high and cost $100,000.

Art experts such as Sherman Lee called it “one of the best monumental sculptures produced in the world sine World War II.”

To the untrained eyes of those who pass “Portal” each workday, it seems useless, just a giant pretzel. They might feel differently if they could snack on it.

Most of the modern art around here, however, is displayed indoors. That way, it won’t scare the horses.

At the Cleveland State University Art Gallery at E. 23rd ST. and Chester Ave., 172 area artists are displaying 335 creations, probably the largest such exhibit outside of the May show.

One such work certainly must be the most unusual work of so-called art to be put on display in our town.

The CSU gallery is full of paintings and sculptures you might enjoy. Abstract paintings full of interesting colors and shapes. A beautiful clear glass bowl. An oil portrait of a pretty woman in a pastel dress.

One sculpture is a chessboard; instead of the usual black and white pieces, the artist made them into Browns and Steelers football players.

Right when you come in, about 15 feet down on the left wall, is a work called “American Ego.” It is a collage of 12 snapshots, some of them splattered with tiny drops of paint.

The day I visited the gallery and witnessed “American Ego,” a group of CSU students in a beginning design class were checking the local artworks as a class exercise.

The class was mostly made up of women in their late teens, along with several young men.

When the students happened upon “American Ego,” many of them made comments. They did not remark about its composition, balance, vibrancy or classical execution. No, here is what they said.

“Gross,” said a young woman.

“That is embarrassing,” said another.

“Oh my God, it’s disgusting,” said a student named Janel Leurienzo. Then she added with sarcasm and a smile, “But, hey, it’s art.”

The 12 snapshots were arranged in a four-by-three grid. They were taken by Steven Smith. They were nude photos of himself.

This being an art gallery and all, you probably expect the photos to be the sort of classical pieces we associate with Greek art.

Oh no, this artist doesn’t mess around. The snapshots were of the real thing: close-ups of the guy’s, uh, groin area.

There were some different poses, to be sure. One was the guy’s private zone draped with a plastic fish.

Another was of a view of his bare buttocks. In this snapshot, rising up and proudly flying from between his upper thighs was one of those little American flags on a stick that you get at political rallies.

One photo treated us to a view of the artist’s personal part wrapped in Old Glory. The 12 photos were sewn onto what looked like those small, thin, square pillows you toss on your couch.

So there it was, an expression of modern art, hanging on a wall at a university for our appreciation.

The male student looked at “American Ego” from about three feet away and moved on. Many of the females looked much closer, maybe a foot away. Then moved on. Later, some of them drifted back alone for another, more private peek.

In their design class, the students discussed what they had just viewed. They liked most of it. Not surprisingly, they had a lot to say about “American Ego.”

A student named Tracy said, “It was different. They usually just show women.”

A young man named James said, “I thought it was funny.”

“I don’t think it was art at all,” Christie Gungl said.

Their teacher, Mary Stokrocki, an associate professor said after class, “I took it as pornographic. I think the university shouldn’t hang something pornographic. If I was curator for this show, I wouldn’t let people get away with that. There are certain things that are not art.”

The creator of the controversial piece, Steven Smith, was given a call. By day, he is a computer programmer out in the suburbs. By night, he lives in a warehouse downtown and makes things that hang in galleries.

“How did you get the idea for “American Ego,” he was asked.

“I was taking Polaroids of myself to get something going.”

“How often do you do this?”

“There’s very little nudity in what I do,” Smith said. “I think I’ve only had four pieces.”

“But what is ‘American Ego’ supposed to mean?”

“It suggests the impotence of American foreign policy,” Smith said. “The false manhood, the macho thing, like in Grenada. Since we are all impotent in one sense, we try to overcome it. I don’t think we are living up to the American spirit when we tell people how to live.”

“Do people think you’re strange?” he was asked.

“Yes they do. I don’t fit in anywhere. Some artists in Cleveland are some of the nicest people I’ve met yet.”

Profound too. I know they must be profound because I do not understand them.

(for 40-some more reviews, cover story and blurbs, go to

Cross Breeding, 1984, 10″ x 21″ – collage & foto Smith

One Response to “book excerpt + Plain Dealer column on my privates”

  1. christina B. says:

    like hearing the background and history of these… very interesting..

    I love that collage.. it is just as revolutionary today as it ever has been.

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