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News: Reaction to Colwell Painting Forces Owner to Quit
posted May 26, 2004

May 26, 2004 -- In one of the spookier, hardest hitting and quickly disappearing stories of the political season, a painting by a later-period underground comics cartoonist on the subject of prisoner abuse in the Iraqi theater caused a local art studio to close its doors after its owner was harassed by outraged viewers. All the weirder, the story took place in the normally placid San Francisco Bay Area community of North Beach, and the underground cartoonist was Guy Colwell, who is perhaps best known in comics circles for breaking sexual taboos rather than tweaking political ones.

Colwell's painting, which was retrieved by the artist on May 29th, was a study in black and white with selected color called "The Abuse." The painting shows two soldiers abusing three naked Iraqi prisoners, while a third soldier takes another prisoner into the room. Placed in the front windoonw, Colwell's work was priced at $2000. Owner Lori Haigh of the gallery Capobianco (Haigh's maiden name) reported to local press she began to receive abuse the week of May 17 in the form of phone calls, objects thrown at the front of the gallery, and garbage left at its entrance. The calls included death threats and implications that her two children could potentially be harmed, and a man who came into the gallery and spat on her. Haigh also filed a report to police saying she was assaulted at the gallery's entrance during daytime hours on May 27th.

Haigh moved the painting from her front window upon a police recommendation, and finally discontinued her gallery's regular hours on May 25, although she continued to visit as business required and had a one-day showing in early June featuring the work from KRK Ryden that was supposed to appear in her gallery that whole month. The closure brought with it an outpouring of sympathy from the San Francisco arts community and local activists, including a resolution before the city board of supervisors condemning the action. In a twist of irony, some artists in Bay Area media praised the 39-year-old Haigh as someone who lacked any overt political agenda when it came to showing art in her gallery, which opened in 2003

Complicating matters, beginning the week of June 1 Circa Art Magazine, the on-line Bay Area columnist Hank Donat and the conservative watchdog of the San Francisco Chronicle, ChronWatch, all ran pieces that indicted the potential accuracy of the press coverage surrounding Haigh's troubles. These reports questioned the naiveté of hanging such overtly political art and not expecting some form of reaction to it, noted that Haigh had received $1.2 million in 2002 to settle accusations regarding abuse from a Catholic Priest, and stated that in 1994 the gallery owner had been sued by the boss of the company where she worked as an office manager for appropriation of funds in the neighborhood of $107,000, a debt she eventually settled. Donat quoted an anonymous police source and an anonymous person who attended the KRK Ryden show as believing the assault claim in particular may have been a hoax.

Neither Haigh or Colwell are speaking to the press, the artist insisting that that painting speaks for itself and asking that the city board resolution not insist on another public display of the painting. The incident itself, like so many others in an election years, has now become buried in a sea of competing agendas and political statements.

Originally Appeared in The Comics Journal