Lose Your Inhibitions

TABOO's sole survivor keeps the art collective's button-pushing agenda alive

Grieving seems like the last thing on artist Larry Jens Anderson's mind today. Standing in the scrupulously designed kitchen of his Morningside house, Anderson ends almost every sentence with an infectious chortle.

As he talks about his days with the art collective TABOO, you get a sense of the naughty, inventive, button-pushing esprit de corps that guided its many projects.

How can Anderson be sad at his status as the last surviving member of TABOO, whose members succumbed to AIDS and other health issues, when his time with the group was so damn fun?

TABOO was the love child of four men, Anderson, David Fraley, King Thackston and Michael Venezia, who came together in 1987 to share their frustration at the politically correct lockstep of an art world whose self-righteous piety can often rival evangelical Christianity's. The TABOO boys were determined to puncture such pomposity.

Like the "Little Rascals" - if the Little Rascals had been gay artists with a wicked sense of humor - the fellas decided to put on a show.

In fact, they put on many.

Over a 12-year span, TABOO curated exhibitions at seemingly every art venue in the city, always with the intent of challenging the conventions of the art world and forcing artists to step out on a limb.

"We'd always been intrigued by the word 'taboo' because things can be so sacred, they become taboo and you can't touch them ... and things can be so evil, they're taboo. So you can go both ways, and we were always interested in that collision of ideas," says Anderson.

Artists clamored to get into the shows, and audiences - despite the initial shock at subject matter addressing race, sexuality, Christianity and irreverence of all stripes - were quickly won over by the group's sense of humor.

Representative of that trouble-making spirit was a sensational, feather-ruffling show that the group curated to coincide with the 1996 Olympics: Gone with the Wind: The Fabrication and Denial of Southern Identity.

One of the highlights was TABOO member Thackston's meticulously realized model railroad replica of an idealized Southern town. The Lilliputian fantasy was perfect: tiny people, adorable buildings, the soothing blend of nostalgia and comfort of a world rendered in idealized miniature. Except that if you peered more closely, you'd notice the itty-bitty lynching and the picket line that goosed the Norman Rockwell ambiance.

With a spirit of playful inventiveness reminiscent of art movements from the Dadaists to the Situationists, the group extended its lampoon of art-world piety beyond its provocatively themed shows. TABOO became a brand. They sold T-shirts at shows that advocated "Buy Art, Not Drugs," helping to raise money for the next show. They placed ads in Art Papers magazine offering ideas for sale.

"No one wrote us back," Anderson laughs.

And they challenged the High Museum's exhibition department to a bowling match. The winning team would receive a dementedly outré trophy designed by TABOO. At its pinnacle is a perky rubber ducky.

That trophy, along with numerous mementoes, ephemera and artworks made by TABOO, will be on display in The Last TABOO, a historical retrospective of the group curated by Anderson at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia through July 9.

Along with that survey of TABOO work will be a separate exhibition of new work featuring various artists examining - in typically provocative TABOO fashion - ideas that still have the power to shock. According to Anderson, masturbation, copulating elephants, Michael Jackson jokes and homosexuality will be included in the shock-banquet.

Anderson feels a duty not only to have The Last TABOO raise the shock bar, but also pay tribute to the artists who made the group what it was.

"I can embarrass myself, but they're dead.

"There's this thing inside of me that wants to make sure I do the group justice."


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