ART: BOB GASOI (1932 - 1997)
A firestorm erupted in 1988 when Bob Gasoi's controversial murals debuted on the facade of the 346 Commercial Street, Provincetown landmark, Shop Therapy.
Shop owners had begun the annual off-season ritual of boarding up the windows and doors of stores up and down Commercial Street in anticipation of Cape Cod's punishing winter. It was innocently suggested by the town council that perhaps the blight could be brightened up by using the rows of ugly plywood as a canvas for art. The Gasoi murals were created on sheets of plywood and then screwed to Shop Therapy's exterior. It was not long before the entire building disappeared behind one giant collage of 4x8s which became one big problem when the community tried to resolve the differences between the mural supporters and its detractors.
The murals were a collaboration. Shop Therapy's owner Ronny Hazel would feed stories about his own world travels and experiences to the artist Gasoi who would regurgitate the tales into scenescapes from the Renaissance, The Bible, Alice in Wonderland, 60's psychedelia, Eastern erotica, comic books and science fiction. There were cherubs, men wearing nothing but wristwatches, lactating figures (an ode to the Giambologna's Fountain of Neptune), monsters crushing the Pilgrim Monument, mermaids, flesh-eating aliens and men holding fruit trays. Faces and bodies were morphed into the likeness of members of the Shop Therapy family along with local hangers-on, local politicians and members of local law enforcement.
Hovering across the top of the murals, in foot-high gold lettering, was the John F. Kennedy quote, "If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, you must see the artist's face to follow his vision wherever it may take them."
The murals left an indelible mark on the hundreds of thousands of visitors who paraded down Commercial Street for years to come. Some parents stood with their families and gazed upon the spectacle with awe while others threw their hands over their children's eyes and ran for the dunes. The local community has always consisted in part of a devout population while others found themselves not quite as open-minded as they once thought they were. They gathered up the pitchforks and torches and brought petitions to the local governing fathers claiming Bob's brushwork leaned more toward pornography than art. Disgusting and offensive were but a few of the adjectives being thrown about.
The town selectman were flummoxed and turned the matter over to the then Provincetown Police Chief Meads who prompty snapped photos to be shipped off to the district attorney.
The formal response read, "As you are perhaps aware, the whole matter with regards to what constitutes obsenity, freedom of expression, and interpretation of artwork is a sensative issue. In this instance, it is virtually a no-win situation for any board of selectman in any town to serve as moral judges or to determine what constitutes an art form.
While we may share your concern and displeasure, our only legal recourse was to refer the matter to law enforcement officers, which we have done."
What was transpiring in Provincetown Town Hall was a small piece of a much bigger issue.
Although censorship issues have plagued mankind for centuries, the nineteen eighties ushered in a new generation of cat and mouse. The frontline became issues swirling about the art world about freedom of speech and expression. The old "you can't yell FIRE! in a theatre" argument was rolled out for the umpteenth time.
The first shot was fired in 1985, when Jello Biafra, the lead singer for the Dead Kennedys, was brought to trial for distributing harmful materials to minors for bundling a poster inside of their Frankenchrist LP that featured rows of vulvas and penises created by the world famous Aliens artist, H.R. Giger
The parade continued with the arrival of the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) and their crusade about the labeling of lyrical content in music. It would pit Tipper Gore versus Frank Zappa in the now infamous US Senate hearings.
"Mother/Tell your children not to walk my way/Tell your children not to hear my words/What they mean, what they say, mother" - Danzig
American artist and photographer, Andres Serrano, upped the ante when his Piss Christ depicted a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine.
In 1990, Robert Mapplethorpe's bondage-inspired homo-erotic photographs landed the curators the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in court as North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms declared war on the National Endowment of the Arts, vetoeing grants to performance artists such as Karen Finley whose act featured the insertion of yams into places where the sun don't shine.
Surely, the art world was certainly testing the boundries of taste but the fierce resistance it faced from the right and its Moral Majority showed cracks when skeletons from the closets of the righteous came to light. Stories about thieving evangelists like Jim and Tammy Baker and child abuse charges against pedophile priests like Father Porter stole newspaper headlines on what seemed like a daily basis.
The most profound statement on the whole situation appeared on one of Bob Gasoi's best mural panels where he defines the word obscene. It was created in part by the Provincetown calligrapher Gail Browne and in the spirit of Mary Heaton Vorse.
DETERIORATING ENVIRONMENT - PUNCTURED OZONE LAYER - NUCLEAR WEAPONS - HUNGRY CHILDREN - RACISM - WAR - POLLUTED WATER - CHILD ABUSE - POLLUTED AIR - NUKES - NUDITY - CARCINOGENIC FOOD - GREED: which ravages the beauty of our planet; causes forests to vanish; causes the extinction of wildlife and destroys the ecology - F-WORDS - CENSORSHIP WITHOUT SENSE - JOKES - LUST - LEWDNESS - RUDENESS NAUGHTY SEX - SMUT - PORNOGRAPHY - SMUG SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS
Bob Gasoi died of natural causes on September 20, 1997, while on his annual Mexican winter getaway. He was born in Brooklyn, New York on May 22, 1931, which is also the hometown of Shop Thearpy's Ronny Hazel. He earned his degree at prestigious Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan before being shipped off to the Korean War. He narrowly avoided the front line when he was diverted to Japan to work as a set designer for the GI entertainment division. He continued his study of art after the war where he became enamored with the Italian city of Rome. He became actively involed with the anti-War movement in the late 60s as a member of Veteran's Against The War. He moved to Provincetown in 1983 where he continued his craft before being commissioned for the Shop Therapy murals. The mural project evolved for the next several years as Gasoi split his time between Provincetown and Mexico with an occasional return to Rome.
Over the course of the life of Gasoi's murals, some compromise was made when a sheriff's badge was painted over the private parts of Provincetown police detective Warren Tobias. The murals eventually lost the battle against wind, sun, and snow to be replaced by the work of our very own Joey Mars.
In the winter of 2013-2014, we realized that the old Shop Therapy murals were a cause for concern. They had been leaned up against a freight container and had begun further deterioration from the soil and the snow. They were literally frozen together when we began prying them apart and setting them up for a last ditch effort to document their existence. We were only able to do a few at a time and by the time spring had arrived we managed to make our way through all the pieces.
Click on any picture to enlarge.