I'll have the breast, please

The debate about what constitutes art is never far from the headlines. But moralizing lawmakers are not the only barriers to public displays.

Urban sophisticates have few places to call their own in Orlando, but those who make and remake the "scene" have carved for themselves a comfortable hangout in the two bistros named by and after Dexter Richardson. Dexter's of Thornton Park, in particular, proves the tony crowd will turn out if given a place to go, and the restaurant and wine bar at the heart of downtown's refurbished residential district is that place.

Which makes it an odd backdrop for art censorship.

Everyone involved chuckles over the matter, including the artist, Gina Bernardini, who worked for seven years as a Dexter's waitress before moving on to art school in Manhattan. But the fact remains: When a few patrons complained individually about some of the bright, playful images that Bernardini had painted against nude female silhouettes, Dexter's took them down.

Geez. The city of Orlando already has a standing policy against nudity in its public art exhibits. If you can't hang art that sparks conversation at Dexter's, where in Orlando can you show it?

"That's what I thought," says Bernardini, now of Miami, who learned about the objections when Dexter's of Thornton Park manager and co-owner John Hoffmeister called her voice-mail.

About 20 of Bernardini's pieces went up around Oct. 1 for a three-month exhibit. Among those paintings that were removed: the hind view of a female squatting in high heels (a version of which also appears on Bernardini's business card); one in which a female's breasts are painted as two eggs, with a fork stuck between the legs (and titled "It's Not Just for Breakfast Anymore"); and one in which the breasts, covered over by purple-and-yellow concentric circles to resemble eyes, appear above a big mouth and teeth painted over the pelvic area. "That was maybe a little bit out there," the artist laughingly concedes.

"To me it's humorous and kind of clever," she adds of her work. "But to other people, I guess it objectifies women."

Actually, says Hoffmeister, those who objected merely called it "unappetizing." Though he has one of Bernardini's works hanging in his dining room at home, he didn't take a stand. "I was tired of hearing the complaints about it," he says. "You gotta make the customer happy."

And Bernardini? "If it was anybody else that did that to me, I might have a different attitude," she says.

Besides, even she is amused by the apparent inconsistency in the protest. (Hoffmeister says he removed three paintings; the artist counts about six.) Another image in the display, she says, paints over a pair of breasts with two eggs sunny-side up; above the pelvic region that is painted with white underwear is the word "easy" -- or "Eggs Over Easy." "That's one they left up," she says.


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