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Martyr art { November 14 2002 }

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'Martyr' a bomb with some art students
By Rebecca Jones, Rocky Mountain News
November 14, 2002

A prize-winning painting by a local artist has so disturbed some students at the Art Students League of Denver that they want it moved to a less-prominent spot in the school.

School officials refuse to do that.

The 4-foot-by-6-foot oil painting by Cong Lu, 24, depicts a young Asian man pulling up his shirt to reveal explosives strapped around his midsection. A pistol is tucked into his waistband. The piece is entitled, Self Portrait of a Martyr.

The painting, one of 78 works on exhibit at the school through December, hangs in the building's main lobby at 200 Grant St. The piece was awarded Student Best of Show, and the artist received a $1,300 Allied Arts Award, given yearly to an outstanding young artist.

But a handful of students have complained about the painting, which they interpret as hostile, anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian. They also object to the title, which equates suicide bombers with martyrs.

Leona Lazar, executive director of the ASLD, said she understands why people find the painting so troubling - but that's no reason to remove it or banish it to a less-visible position.

"Art is subjective," she said. "Used as a metaphor or presented as the artist's personal statement, every opinion is valid and every viewer is entitled to his or her own interpretation."

"We have a lot of pretty art around here," she said. "But we want people to think. The beauty of art is this wonderful freedom to express ideas."

The school's faculty and board of directors issued a statement unanimously supporting the artist's right to self-expression. "No matter how much pain is felt when viewing a work such as this, we should not lose sight of the fact that this kind of expression can be voiced in America because of our right of freedom of speech," they said.

Lu, who signs his paintings as Lucong, lived in Shanghai until his family came to the United States when he was 11. He grew up in Iowa and has degrees in biology and fine arts from the University of Iowa. He moved to Denver in 2000. He wasn't available for comment.

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