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After student complaints, administrators remove 'unsettling' painting in Keohane

The Louvre displays the “Mona Lisa,” the Museum of Modern Art features “Starry Night,” and Keohane 4B dormitory boasted a work of art known as “Untitled 1.”

The piece—painted at an on-campus art workshop—stood near the entrance to Keohane 4B for around two years. However, in response to a post on the Fix My Campus Facebook page and a survey revealing student concerns about the artwork, “Untitled 1” has been taken down and temporarily placed in storage.

Multiple students told The Chronicle that the style of the piece elicited a feeling of unease. For senior Lucia Helena Mees, the artwork’s appearance only adds to an already stressful atmosphere at Duke.

“It’s just not the sort of relaxing, colorful painting I was expecting to see on a college dorm hallway, and it’s a frightening scene to see late at night,” Mees wrote in an email. “In a high-stress environment like Duke, I’d expect to go home and relax, which is hard when you see paintings like those around.” 

Artist Joe Dobson, who created the work, acknowledged that the painting might make some people feel uneasy. He explained that he often created works while “sneaking around at night” and that his pieces might reflect some of that energy.

“So what fits, at least in my humble opinion, in the street doesn’t always translate to the comforts of a dorm, living room, etc.,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “So if [Duke] would ever like to have me back, I’d be happy to paint something with some more of that positive energy, and hopefully bring them nothing but good vibes.”

Bill Fick, a lecturing fellow in the department of art, art history and visual studies, was present when the painting was created. He admitted it was understandable that some students might not find it pleasing to the eye, but argued in favor of the work.

“I can understand the image not being of interest or folks not liking it, but it’s definitely a very well made spray painted work of art,” he wrote in an email. “Does it have aesthetic value? I definitely think it does and follows a well-established tradition of street art and graffiti.”

Fick added that if the work ended up being removed for good, he would be “more than happy” to welcome it into the art department’s building.

The placard next to the painting. "Untitled 1" was not actually painted at the Mural Durham Festival.
The placard next to the painting. "Untitled 1" was not actually painted at the Mural Durham Festival.

The origins of Keohane’s iconic work

The humble origins of “Untitled 1” began around 2012—not 2016, as the painting’s placard claimed—according to Fick. He mentioned he was present when the work was created by Dobson, who paints under the Big Trouble Studios name.

Fick added that he remembered Dobson’s work was based on artistry in Bazooka Joe, a comic strip character who was often featured on gum wrappers. The piece was created when multiple graffiti artists came to Duke to showcase their techniques, he explained.

While the original intent was for the artists to share their styles with students, the outdoor workshop was caught up in a sudden storm and forced to move to a small indoor space—leading to “Untitled 1.”

“A couple students came by but to my best memory we just kinda hung out amongst ourselves and painted,” Dobson wrote in an email to The Chronicle. 

For “Untitled 1,” Dobson drew on many of his usual influences, including spray paint graffiti and freestyle hip-hop, which he sees as “pure art forms” that respond to a specific moment in time. Driven by the desire to create art rooted in the moment, Dobson freestyled the painting, which adapted traditional graffiti letterforms into a cartoonish character. 

“People tend to respond better to the characters versus the letterforms, even if the same energy, style and techniques go into both,” Dobson noted. 

While Dobson remembers “Untitled 1” fondly, he did note that the name may be somewhat misleading. 

“As for the title, I suppose just Untitled versus Untitled 1 would make the most sense,” Dobson wrote. “This certainly wasn't the first and I've painted thousands, in some form or another, to date.”

The rise and fall of ‘Untitled 1’

After the workshop the painting bounced around for a bit, spending stints in the Arts Annex and Allen Building before finding its way into Keohane. The work was first introduced to Keohane in the summer of 2017, Residence Coordinator Jeff Nelson wrote in an email.

And there it remained adorning the Keohane walls, until a Facebook post brought the artwork into the limelight.

On Sept. 4, senior Cristina Garcia Ayala posted a photo of the piece to the Fix My Campus page, asking whether it was possible for the artwork to be removed. The post has since received 160 likes and reactions as of publication.

One day after the post, Nelson sent out a survey to Keohane residents gathering feedback on the painting. The survey, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle, asked students about the function of art and the style of pieces they would like to see featured in the dorms.

Nelson declined to comment on the survey or artwork to The Chronicle, deferring to Joe Gonzalez, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of residential life.

Gonzalez credited Nelson with working alongside students to spearhead the acquisition of more artwork in the dorms.

“I think it’s been very well received for the most part,” Gonzalez said. “Obviously the one painting has generated some concerns from the community, but overall I think people have really appreciated the introduction of the art.”

In the email containing a link to the survey, Nelson pushed back on the idea that the art was a “top-down initiative,” explaining that many of the paintings in Keohane were acquired by the Residential Life team, which includes student-led House Councils.

“If you've been to other residence halls, you'll start to realize that the art hanging around Keohane is unique, both in its quantity (we have more than most, if not all, other areas) and content (more student-created art, more variety in its subjects, more styles and forms and media),” Nelson wrote in the email.

Almost a week later, he announced the survey results to the Keohane community in a Sept. 11 email, which was also obtained by The Chronicle. The three street-art style pieces in the dorm—including “Untitled 1”—would be taken down and placed in storage pending further student discussion.

Gonzalez explained that Nelson consulted him in the process of responding to the concerns, but that the solution was developed by the residence coordinator himself.

In the Sept. 11 email, Nelson noted that “Untitled 1” was not universally disliked and that one student had praised the artwork in a survey response. He also announced that an event would be held at the beginning of November for Keohane residents to discuss the meaning of good art.

“My hope in this program is not to convince you of anything. I'm not hoping to convince you to like the three street-art style pieces,” Nelson wrote. “But my hope is that you critically engage in an important conversation around space, art, beauty, community, and representation.”

Blue Ridge House Council and Maxwell Executive Board will “facilitate a decision” to determine the fate of the three art pieces, Nelson wrote. They can determine to keep the art in its current location, move it, remove it in favor of an empty space or remove it and replace it.

Student criticisms

Ahead of the decision to reconsider the fate of the painting, student reactions to the piece were mixed. 

In a survey conducted by The Chronicle—on a busy Tuesday afternoon—students walking past the painting on their walk through Keohane 4B were split on “Untitled 1.” 

Of 30 students who were asked about the painting, half of them rated the painting a one out of five. Five more—including one student who asked to give a 1.5 to avoid feeling mean, and whose score was rounded up—gave the painting a two out of five. 

On the other end, many students were more favorable toward the painting, with ten students rating the painting a three or a four, calling it an interesting break from other art in the building.

Sadly, at least for the painting’s fans, there were no perfect scores. 

Mees, the senior who called the work “a frightening scene to see at night,” explained that even though she lives live in Keohane 4E, the art has caught her attention many times when visiting her friends in 4B. 

She applauded the administration’s response to student concerns.

“I think the discussion on this issue was valid since it finally brought students into the conversation, and allowed us to help shape a place that we should feel is our home,” Mees wrote. “It was great to see how quickly the administration responded to our concerns, and that our opinions are definitely being taken into consideration.”

For senior Dina Daas, the piece brought back unpleasant memories associated with childhood TV.

“I found the painting to be reminiscent of the artistry in ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog,’ a television show which terrified me throughout childhood,” she wrote in an email. “As a result, I felt that the painting was unsettling and disturbing to me and other members of the Duke community.”

The piece also adversely affected senior Alice Reed, who wrote to The Chronicle that she has an anxiety disorder. Whenever she passed by “Untitled 1” for her house course in Keohane, Reed would refuse to look at the work due to increased anxiety and a possible panic attack.

She acknowledged that the art has intrinsic value and added that she hopes the voices of students with disabilities aren’t “drowned out” during a potential vote over the pieces.

An effort to expand amount of art

Gonzalez explained that introduction of more art has accompanied renovations of dorms across campus.

“Increasing the presence of art in our buildings is something we’ve been pursuing more aggressively over recent years,” he said. “In renovations and new construction projects, we’ve incorporated more artwork than we had previously.”

Although there is no official policy governing art in dorms, Gonzalez acknowledged that Housing and Residence Life is striving to create a more formal process for spreading art to dorms, one that he said would draw heavily on Keohane as a positive example.

“We certainly want students to support what’s happening in their community and be involved,” he said. “I think this offers the opportunity for that to happen.”

Correction: "Starry Night" is in the Museum of Modern Art, not the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

"Untitled 1" was painted at an on-campus workshop, not at the Mural Durham Festival.

The Chronicle regrets the error.


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