featured gallery for October 2009

Art, AIDS and Activism

I came to Visual AIDS's Frank Moore Archive Project to think about how artists living with HIV have treated AIDS in their work over the course of the epidemic, and how art has shaped the cultural and political response to HIV/AIDS. My own consciousness as an activist was fueled by the graphics of Gran Fury and ACT UP. I wanted to look to recent art for insight and imagery that might ignite new activist responses to the epidemic and strengthen the social justice movement for HIV prevention and treatment access among all of the affected communities.

AIDS first erupted in urban gay male communities that had deep roots in the gay liberation movement and in the arts. The first wave of AIDS activism fused iconic graphics and dramatic political action to demand and win an urgent response from the government and medical institutions. Artists also grappled with the grief, rage, illness, sex, fear and death that ravaged our communities, and their work shaped the perception of HIV itself.

As the epidemic has changed, so have the artists and so has the art. The art about AIDS that is from, of and perhaps for the communities that are now most affected by HIV is profoundly different from the work of the first wave. Although treatments are far from ideal, an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, and the themes of the work have changed. Political graphics and images of death and dying are relatively scarce. More fundamentally, artists living with HIV focus less on HIV/AIDS itself. The artists are more diverse, and, for those whose work explicitly engages with social issues, HIV is only one strand of complex webs of experience and community.

For this show, I selected from the archives examples of work from the first 10 years of AIDS, and others from the last decade. These periods are separated by the 1990s, when, on one hand, antiretroviral treatments were developed and became increasingly accessible and effective, and, on the other, the epidemic continued to spread, driven by racism, poverty, inadequate health care and prevention education, and particularly devastating low-income communities of color. I inevitably imposed my own historical narrative and preoccupations on the archives, and my interpretation of the works I selected as being in some way "about" HIV is, of course, subjective. But the process of exploring the archives also complicated my understanding of the intersections among AIDS, art and activism.

The art of the first decade of AIDS returns us to a time when the gay community was submerged in a wave of agonizing deaths, sex was dangerous again after an exhilarating moment of liberation, and treatments were ineffective. (Most of the artists from this period in this exhibit have died.) Marc Lida's 1983 watercolor "AIDS #5" shows Death hovering over, and rats surrounding, two hot men fucking. Cuban artist, Carlos Alfonzo's work was largely autobiographical, and many of his paintings were about his own and his friends' struggles with AIDS. He painted the tormented and tumultuous oil "Grief" in 1988, three years before his death.

Medicine, then still largely helpless against the virus, figures prominently in works from the first decade. Kurt Reynolds' 1990 assemblage "Retrovir (AZT): Miracle Drug?" contemplates the promise of the first HIV antiretroviral. Although AZT fell short of the longed-for miracle, it has been effective in tolerable dosages as part of triple combinations, and Reynolds is still alive and working. Reynolds often used Catholic iconography -- and here, the play on "miracle" -- to demonstrate "how particular attitudes and dogma have contributed to discrimination, crimes of hate, and the spread of HIV/AIDS." Frank Moore's 1992 painting "Pearline," "in which drops of blood fall like a tropical rain past an impassive, syringe-bearing nurse" (Linda Yablonski) under the ironic banner "Get Well Soon," evokes the hopelessness of the first decade. Copy Berg's "Die You HIV Scum" (1991) and John Sapp's 1989 "Adam and I Finally Went to Key West" both put HIV meds front and center. Hugh Steers' painting "Two Men and a Woman" (1992) is a heartbreaking reminder of how hundreds of thousands of young men were cut down in their primes by AIDS. Steers died in 1995 at 32, and for the last five years his work increasingly concentrated on AIDS, and on men dying and caring for one another. This painting also recalls the unsung role of women at the height of the gay epidemic.

Gregory Russell's art, by contrast, is full of fury. 1992's "Conspiracy" is a triptych: the first image is of a casket before a church and an American flag, the second juxtaposes images of medical research with dollar signs, and the third is a gas-masked head below a cloud. AIDS is represented as genocide committed against gays and African-Americans that implicates the U.S. government, the churches, and the pharmaceutical industry. Keith Haring explicitly fused gay liberation with a call to activism in 1989's "Silence = Death." The human figures in the pink triangle are not only silent: they are also refusing to see and hear.

Works that speak to HIV from the last decade in the archives are different. There are many more artists of color and from outside the U.S. represented in the Archives, and figurative imagery similarly deals with a more diverse world. Many are tough images of the communities and subcultures now most affected by AIDS. Jose Luis Cortes is a Puerto Rican painter who incorporates S&M and drug imagery into his work. In his "Frankie's Tattoos" series (2001), no specters of death hover around the tattoos of muscular men fucking on Frankie's back while he leans forwards, inscribing his own leg. Memphis's print "Climbing Picket Fences" (2002) evokes both slavery and illuminated church windows in the imprisonment of a black man, and Carlos Gonzalez's deceptively idyllic "Handball Play at Correctional Facility" (2003) also confronts incarceration.

The art brings home that AIDS is no longer a gay disease. Argentinean artist Hector Toscano's "Series: Ninos HIV+ (1)" (2000) combines photos of children superimposed on fragile petals, a child's drawings, and text in a haunting collage that brings immediacy and singularity to the pediatric AIDS epidemic. "AIDS Africa" is an acrylic painting by Edwin Lacend, a gay Black artist infected in 1990, who works with Afrocentric themes. Only the title reveals that this tender image of a pregnant woman and her child walking hand-in-hand is about AIDS, bringing home very powerfully how differently HIV has affected the continent.

HIV specific imagery is also present in this period. Of his "Viral Load Series," Joe De Hoyos said, "It obviously deals with the issue of AIDS, but visually it is composed of graphic dots and tiny images of various objects -- the dots being the 'virus' and the objects being the 'load.'" (Black Viral Load Series (Panel 2)" 2005). Humberto Moreno's "Atripla" (2007) is a distorted portrait of a man squinting over a blindfold reading "Auxilio" ("Help me") and choking down a large phallic version of the familiar pink one-a-day antiretroviral. Iowa-born Larry Jabell uses I.V. tubes, capsules and beads to create fireworks exploding across an American flag in "Against AIDS" (2002), insinuating HIV into this most conventional of patriotic icons and signifying the ubiquity of AIDS -- and Pharma -- in America.

There is a humanism, even optimism, in recent work about HIV. In Kevin Wesley's oil painting "We are All HIV+", five people -- male and female, old and young, of different colors, one spinning a glowing earth -- in a dark room are connected by a twisting umbilicus; light is beaming in from a door behind them. And Elton Tucket's mixed media "Vibrantly Alive" (2005) shows eight men and women gazing up under the words "Today is a beautiful day and I am vibrantly alive." Conversely, explicitly political art, like Trinidadian artist David Reyes' "Stop the Genocide" (2000) acrylic on paper bag, is less common.

I still hear Kurt Reynolds' urgent call, two years after effective antiretroviral combinations became the standard of care, that we need art that addresses "the denial, complacency and complicity since the advent of protease inhibitors ... There is an entire generation that has not witnessed the horror of HIV/AIDS" (1998). But Reynolds' own work follows the arc of AIDS art; explicit references to AIDS and activism have since then largely disappeared from his art.

Trying to really see the art in the archives made me realize that I had approached the work with a subconscious nostalgia for a coherent "art against AIDS" that could again ignite a unified movement against a single disease. But the work defies that simplistic longing, and exposes the idea of "the AIDS movement" as a fiction. HIV has produced many different epidemics, each specific to a culture and a community, and each eliciting different work from affected artists. The problem is not just the virus, but the economic and social injustices which are the conditions of its replication.