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What is smut?

Nina’s Nook’s ‘Triple S’ exhibit lets people  decide for themselves

Art lovers can once again challenge their modesty by having a look at the second annual “Triple S” show at Nina’s Nook on Avenue A in Turners Falls. “Triple S” is shorthand for “Sensuality, sexuality, smut,” three words that describe the range of erotic expression in the artworks on display. Curator Nina Rossi opened the show Feb. 2 and is continuing it through the end of March. Rossi chose February as the month in which to open because Valentine’s Day already gets folks thinking about love.

Works in the show range from the relatively tame — Rossi’s clay Pan sculptures or Edite Cunha’s sardine can assemblages that feature sweet, old-timey porcelain figurines — to unambiguously explicit photographs. There are 30 exhibitors in the show; 11 men and 19 women.

Any discomfort at the nature of some the imagery is compounded by the fact that Nina’s Nook is only 5 feet wide by 20 feet long, essentially an alley with a lid on top. There’s no stepping back from the art, nowhere to glance away. The walls are hung nearly ceiling to floor with drawings, paintings, assemblages, collages and photographs. Shelves hold pottery, jewelry and crafts, including Rossi’s signature soft fabric slugs. The slugs began, Rossi says on her website, “as sort of a contrary joke for a ‘Garden Art’ exhibit. Rebelling against the reign of jewel-like watercolor flowers in still life, I decided to invade the exhibit with slugs.”

A similar penchant for what Rossi called “debunking” drives the “Triple S” show. American culture tends to either cloak sexuality or sensationalize it. Why not put aside judgment, display a range of images and let people decide for themselves what is sensual, what is sexual, what is smut?

“I guess the word these days is ‘sex positive,’” Rossi said, of her approach. “Sex acceptance, integration, in a completely wholesome way.”

Bruce Kahn, a photographer who lives in Northfield found that the Triple S show gave him the opportunity to create work he might not have made otherwise.

“One of the things that Nina said in her communications to artists was, ‘Bring the work you can’t show anywhere else,’ Kahn said. “And that was intriguing to me … It was kind of fun to say, ‘OK, let’s push the envelope a little more than I usually do.’”

Kahn has two “manipulated photos” in the exhibit. The pieces are collages that are created in the computer and printed on metal. One of them, which Kahn made specifically for the show, combines male and female anatomy with sea creatures to create a surrealistic landscape. Though the effect of Kahn’s composite images is otherworldly, he does strive to unify the elements by manipulating the direction of light or creating shadows to achieve the illusion that the same light was falling on every object within the scene. “I try to have the end result look as if it could have been a picture that I took. That is, if those things existed in real life, I could have just snapped the picture of them,” Kahn said.

As for how people respond to the nudity in his images, Kahn said, “I’m about to turn 59 and, for me, I’m at a place in my life where I can’t be bothered to be embarrassed by my work … I’m creating this and I’m putting it out there and if somebody feels I should be embarrassed by it, that’s their business.”

Liz Smith, a jeweler who lives in Millers Falls, was similarly nonchalant about the potential embarrassment factor of the Triple S show. Both last year and this, Smith created a variety of hand-knit “Willie Warmers” for the exhibit. The Willie Warmers come in many styles and colors, including one that resembles a traditional bulky, cable-knit fisherman’s sweater and one that is a bright blue and red Superman outfit with detachable cape. Lest they be mistaken for contraceptive devices, Smith’s Willie Warmer tags contain a tongue-in-cheek warning: “Yarn is a permeable membrane.”

“I guess my approach is definitely to come in on the humorous side, which dispels a lot of tension around things,” Smith said. “I would say the penis cozies are not really erotic as such. They just seemed like a good complement to the rest of what’s happening in the show.”

Many of her friends offered themed ideas for the Willie Warmers when they discovered what she was knitting. “One of my mother’s friends who’s in her 60s was full of ideas,” Smith said. Because of the responses of other people, making the Willie Warmers became an interactive art experience that Smith enjoyed. Smith is better known for her painted polymer jewelry, which can be found at The Shelburne Arts Cooperative in Shelburne Falls.

Kahn, Smith and Rossi agreed that the opening, which included an erotic literature reading, had been well attended and brought a liveliness to downtown Turners Falls. For the most part, response to the Triple S show has been positive. If people do seem to have a negative response, “It’s silence mostly,” Rossi said. “It’s a small face.”

“Well, I find that odd because it’s no secret what the exhibition is,” Kahn said.

But Rossi said that from time to time, “I do get passersby who don’t know about the show or who have never noticed there’s a shop here and ... ”

“Surprise!” interjected Smith, laughing.

“Well, and then I feel apologetic,” Rossi said. To those customers who seem to feel shocked or self-conscious, she’ll say, “It’s not always like this. I have regular stuff. Come back in April,” Rossi laughs.

Or go in March. The “Triple S” show closes March 31. Nina’s Nook is open Wednesdays and Thursdays, 4 to 6 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 1 to 6 p.m.; and Sundays by appointment. Call 413-834-8800 for more information or visit Rossi’s website: http://www.ninastudio.net.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at
tcrapo@me.com

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