Retrospectives devoted to individual artists and artist collectives like Gran Fury have addressed HIV/AIDS, as have smaller gallery shows; however, large-scale exhibitions about the epidemic remain rare. Art AIDS America aims to be the most comprehensive exploration of the impact of AIDS on the course of American art. Organized by Tacoma Art Museum and the Bronx Museum of the Arts and co-curated by Rock Hushka, chief curator at Tacoma Art Museum, and Jonathan D. Katz, director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the State University of New York, Buffalo, this multimedia exhibition surveys artistic responses to AIDS from the early 1980s to the present day and features over one hundred artists.
While the show is ambitious in the sheer number of works involved and in its notable inclusion of lesser-known artists alongside more familiar figures, such as Keith Haring, Kiki Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Glenn Ligon, the opening exhibition rightfully received criticism for its lack of racial diversity. Critics decried that only 5 out of 107 artists in the initial Tacoma show were artists of color (and among them, only one, Kia Labeija, is a woman). Since, as the Center for Disease Control reports, African Americans face the most new HIV diagnoses per year and comprise the largest number of individuals ever diagnosed with AIDS, protestors like the Tacoma Action Collective felt Art AIDS America should better reflect these demographics.
In many ways, the curators seem caught between “refocus[ing] attention on the ever-present reality of HIV/AIDS” and acknowledging how HIV/AIDS has changed the course of American art (15). These dual goals are not mutually exclusive, but achieving both requires recognizing artists and activists outside the historically white and predominantly male American artistic canon as well as asking self-reflective questions regarding who gets to tell the history of AIDS. Whose narratives dominate our cultural imaginary, and why? How do museums, archives, and other institutions show the silencing of AIDS without further silencing?
In the second incarnation of Art AIDS America, the Zuckerman Museum of Art (ZMA) responded to these critiques by expanding the exhibition to include a more diverse roster of artists. The ZMA added seven additional works by artists of color, including Marlon Riggs, Whitfield Lovell, William Downs, and Bethany Joy Collins. Perhaps even more compelling were the ZMA’s efforts to highlight local art and activism, much of which was spurred by African Americans in the community. Kennesaw, considered part of the greater metropolitan Atlanta area, is thus a particularly fitting site for Art AIDS America. The show is also relevant to Atlanta today, since, according to a timeline of HIV- and AIDS-related history accompanying the exhibition, Atlanta was ranked the number one city for new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in 2015. This local history, which the ZMA highlights throughout its atrium, imbues the show with much-needed context beyond the museum walls. The ZMA also commissioned a short film featuring Labeija and curator Sur Rodney (Sur), who discuss their experiences of racism in the arts. Adding these elements does not undo decades of discrimination within arts institutions, but it does foster much-needed dialogue between museums and the communities they serve (or should be serving).
Works of art in the exhibition similarly convey the power of collective action and the persistence of community, friendship, and humor in the face of homophobia, erasure, and unthinkable loss. The show is not overtly thematic, though there are clear semblances in thoughtfully placed pairings and groupings. For example, one enters the exhibition in the East Galleries through Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Water) (1995), strands of iridescent teal and silver beads that hang across the gallery threshold. Next to it is Robert Gober’s Drains (1990), a pewter drain installed at eye level in the gallery wall. The cross-like bracket at the drain’s base resonates with the baptismal effect of walking through Gonzalez-Torres’s beads. “Untitled” (Water) overwhelms Drains, as if the water is coming out in lieu of going down the drain, a resurrection of sorts and a reminder of resilience in the midst of all that has been lost in the wake of AIDS.
Many of the artworks in the East Galleries share a palimpsestic quality, an absent presence palpable in Shimon Attie’s Untitled Memory (projection of Axel H.) (1998) and Joy Episalla’s pillow 5 (2003–14), photographs that resonate with Gonzalez-Torres’s now-iconic Untitled (billboard of an empty bed) from 1991. Similar corporeal traces are evident in Daniel Goldstein’s Icarian I Incline (1993), a shadowbox display of the worn leather seat of a bench press salvaged from the now defunct Muscle System gym in San Francisco’s Castro District. The leather is shroud-like, a relic whose variegated patina is the result of residual sweat from thousands of gym goers, many of whom perished from AIDS.
Amid haunting pieces and harrowing portraits depicting Kaposi’s sarcoma, such as Alon Reininger’s Ken Meeks, PWA (1985), there is also an abundance of art that is playful, crude, triumphant, and unabashedly sex-positive. Lari Pittman’s Spiritual and Needy (1991–92) pulsates with color and sexual energy. Emblazoned with red-and-white static and flaming buttocks, the painting exhorts “f-me!” Likewise, Derek Jackson’s slideshow Perfect Kiss (2007) throbs with strobe-like photographs of the artist dancing, smiling, and posing while New Order’s 1985 single “Perfect Kiss” blares, filling the surrounding space. Jackson’s slide show and soundtrack compete with Kalup Linzy’s playfully homoerotic spoof of Hunter and Jenkins’s 1933 duet Lollypop (2006), which can be heard around the corner. In contrast to this upbeat tenor, the bells of Every Ten Minutes, a 1991 audio track by Robert Farber, subtly toll in ten-minute increments (in 1991, it was reported that every ten minutes someone died of AIDS).
These tonal juxtapositions recur in the Malinda Jolley Mortin Gallery, where the exhibition continues after a somewhat disjointed stroll through the Ruth V. Zuckerman Pavilion (the Pavilion houses items from the museum’s permanent collection and is not part of Art AIDS America). As in the East Galleries, the Mortin Gallery is split into a large central space with three smaller rooms. The entryway contains Keith Haring’s Altar Piece: The Life of Christ (1990), the artist’s last work before his death. Haring’s strikingly lit altar imbues the space with a reverential air that recurs in an adjacent room featuring images of sickness, death, and caretaking. Like exempla from holy texts, Sue Coe’s Kaposi’s Sarcoma (1993) and Catherine Opie’s Ron Athey/The Sick Man (from Deliverance) (2000) are modern-day pietàs that counteract the bigotry encountered by so many living with HIV/AIDS.
The larger gallery space highlights several self-portraits. While diverse in style and medium, many of these works share a bold and defiant air. Ryan Conrad’s b.1983 (2008) reads, “every day they stay alive is a revolutionary act.” Ray Navarro’s tongue-in-cheek Equipped (1990) comprises three black-and-white photographs of assistive devices—an overturned wheel chair, a walker, and a cane—with the captions “Hot Butt,” “Studwalk,” and “Third Leg.” In the final room of the exhibition, Mark I. Chester’s portrait of playwright Robert Chesley (1989) in a Superman suit and Jerome Caja’s Bozo Fucks Death (1988) evince a similarly playful obstinance. Caja’s Shroud of Curad (1993), nail polish and blood on a Curad bandage, brings the final gallery full circle from somber religious references to spirited irreverence.
Carrie Yamaoka’s photograph Steal This Book #2 (1991) encapsulates the exhibition (and its omissions). In black font, the words “slaughter” and “history” boldly jump out from faded text and a stark white backdrop. A noticeable gap between the words entreats the viewer to hunt for meaning. In light of HIV/AIDS, the words conjure the obliteration of communities and their histories, but I also read them as a call to remake dominant accounts of the past, to refashion and retell, to be attentive to who and what are left out. May this powerful exhibition, one haunted by loss and erasure but simultaneously teeming with verve and resistance, spur us all not only to be more vigilant stewards of the past but also fierce allies of those for whom the present is ever precarious. As Visual AIDS’s slogan avers, “AIDS is not over” (64).
A striking exhibition catalogue featuring eleven essays and two hundred color illustrations accompanies Art AIDS America. Authors, including artists, curators, academics, and activists, chiefly focus on San Francisco and New York-based art, activism, and archival materials. While a few essays acknowledge issues of race, class, and gender, artists of color, particularly cisgender and transgender women, remain largely overlooked.
Visiting Assistant Professor, Women’s Studies Program, Agnes Scott College
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