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Secret Service visits art show at Columbia

Chicago Sun-Times | April 12 2005

Organizers of a politically charged art exhibit at Columbia College's Glass Curtain Gallery thought their show might draw controversy.

But they didn't expect two U.S. Secret Service agents would be among the show's first visitors.

The agents turned up Thursday evening, just before the public opening of "Axis of Evil, the Secret History of Sin," and took pictures of some of the art pieces -- including "Patriot Act," showing President Bush on a mock 37-cent stamp with a revolver pointed at his head.

The agents asked what the artists meant by their work and wanted museum director CarolAnn Brown to turn over the names and phone numbers of all the artists. They wanted to hear from the exhibit's curator, Michael Hernandez deLuna, within 24 hours, she said.

Curator in previous controversy

"They just want to make sure it isn't something more than a statement," Brown said.

This isn't the first time Hernandez has had a brush with the feds over a fake stamp. In 2001, authorities said they suspected he was behind a bogus stamp that bore a black skull and crossbones and the word "Anthrax." It was sent through the mail during the height of the anthrax scare.

The Columbia exhibit features 47 artists from 11 countries and depicts powerful religious and political leaders worldwide on mock postage stamps. One, called "Citizen John Ashcroft," shows Ashcroft's face fashioned from images of naked bodies at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Another piece -- "I saw it in a movie starring Steven Segal" -- shows a series of images of an airplane nearing, then crashing into the Sears Tower, and ends with the Chicago skyline without the skyscraper.

A Secret Service agent called the gallery again Friday, asking for contact information for Al Brandtner, a Chicago artist who created the Bush piece, Brown said. Brandtner could not be reached for comment.

'Just doing some looking into it'

The gallery didn't have the information because the show is made up of independent artists not tied to the college -- including Hernandez, a Chicago artist who not only organized the show but has works featured in it. Brown said she referred the agent to attorneys representing the artists.

Secret Service spokesman Brandon Bridgeforth said he couldn't go into specifics about last week's visit.

"We are doing some inquiries into the art exhibit. We're just doing some looking into it," Bridgeforth said.

Columbia College spokeswoman Micki Leventhal said agents were responding to citizen complaints about the artwork, which received some pre-show publicity in Chicago media.

Leventhal said news of the Secret Service visit was surprising and unprecedented for any art show. She said the exhibit had opened in Philadelphia with no complaints. Columbia agreed to the exhibit because of its "high artistic standards" and supports it even though the artists are not affiliated with the college, she said.

"We're an art school. Our position has always been and remains: We support freedom of speech, freedom of artistic expression and academic freedom," Leventhal said.

Hernandez said any government involvement could come close to trampling First Amendment rights.

"It frightens me ... as an artist and curator. Now we're being watched," Hernandez said. "It's a new world. It's a Big Brother world. I think it's frightening for any artist who wants to do edgy art."

Hernandez said he hopes the public sees the exhibit as a whole -- and not just about one man or even one country. Some works Hernandez thought would be more controversial challenge Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church. Others look at Nazi Germany and the killing fields in Cambodia.

He refused to talk about the 2001 incident, when he was suspected of being involved in a fake anthrax stamp that shut down an area of Chicago's main post office. Hernandez and another Chicago artist routinely sent fake stamps through the mail, then sold them for thousands of dollars.

The exhibit at Glass Curtain Gallery, 1104 S. Wabash, runs through May 11 and is dedicated to Chicago artist Ed Paschke, who died Nov. 25.