Artist Paul Cava pulls exhibition from Philadelphia Cathedral after some images deemed too sensual

Paul Cava, one of Philadelphia’s most respected artists, canceled an exhibition hours before it was to open Wednesday at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral on South 38th Street after church authorities objected to nudity in some images and asked for them to be removed from the show.

Cava said he considered the refusal to hang the complete show an act of censorship.

The Rev. Judith A. Sullivan, dean of the cathedral, said, “I do not consider it an act of censorship.”

“Please consider our context as a house of worship,” she said.

The exhibition, “Paul Cava/Inks,” was hung and set to open Wednesday evening when Sullivan called Cava and told him that six of the 18 works had offended parishioners at an Ash Wednesday service.

She removed the paintings and placed them out of sight in an office, according to a parishioner.

The exhibit, Cava said later, is a distinct body of interrelated works inspired by the Cambodian genocide.

Sullivan said Thursday that the six images “were deemed to be too sensual for our sanctuary space” and Cava was asked if they could be removed for the length of the show, with the 12 remaining works in place.

“That was unacceptable to him,” Sullivan said. “I understand artistic integrity. …We are not an art gallery.”

Cava said that he had been “reassured over and over by the powers that be that everything was fine” with the exhibition prior to installation.

“They are a response to the Cambodia genocide,” he said. “What better place to show them than the cathedral during Lent?”

On the day of the opening, he said, Sullivan called and expressed appreciation for the work at some length. But, she said, “we’ve got a problem.”

“She said, ‘Can you take out these pictures?’ ” Cava recalled. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ I couldn’t go along with that. So I took [the exhibition] down.”

Cava said that a family with a young child objected to the work.

“She got a couple of complaints and decided this was a fight not worth fighting,” Cava said. “She got pressure and caved.”

Sullivan expressed frustration with the situation. She noted that the cathedral had instituted a vigorous art exhibition program years ago and sought to be responsive to the Philadelphia artistic community. She also said that nude figures had been shown previously in the church without complaint or issue.

“The six images were deemed too sensual,” Sullivan said. “The perception was that they were just not appropriate for our sanctuary space. They were not appropriate for our church. … We have the utmost respect for Paul Cava and for his work.”

She said there were no guidelines setting out what would be inappropriate for exhibition at the cathedral, adding that the thumbnail images of the works to be shown were small and difficult to read.

“I couldn’t tell from the smaller images what their impact would be” when hung on the walls, Sullivan said.

Anne Minich, an artist and cathedral parishioner who has served as a curator for the exhibition program in the past, said she was not consulted about the show, which was curated by the Rev. Robert L. Tate, the cathedral’s director of visual arts.

Tate could not be reached immediately for comment.

Minich said she “fully supports” Cava’s actions.

“But I understand where the dean is coming from,” Minich said Thursday. “Taking down the show is wrong. She is not an artist and is probably not aware that what she’s doing isn’t done in the civilized world of art, if there is a civilized world of art anymore.”

That said, Minich continued, “Paul’s nudes are sensuous; they aren’t academic nudes at all.”

Cava said he has found another venue for the work. Moderne Gallery on North Third Street has stepped into the breach and will host the exhibit beginning with a March 3 opening reception. The exhibition will run through April 14.

He says he “had reservations” about showing at the cathedral from the beginning but says he was continually reassured that all was fine, only to have the rug pulled when it mattered most.

“I didn’t want this to happen,” he said. “I should have been told this at the beginning.”