featured gallery for December 2012

No Wasted Words, No Illusions

As I looked through thousands of slides of work by artists living and dead, I found that what spoke to me was the literal and obvious--the artists' personal response to the epidemic and their own HIV infection. As a journalist (since 1970) and AIDS educator and activist (since 1987), I've always been attracted to anger as an appropriate response to injustice, and the AIDS epidemic is certainly another example of a flawed human race needing to be confronted. These artists are speaking loudly, honestly and directly--demanding a response.

For direct, unfiltered rage, there is nothing clearer than Joe DeHoyos's "Diary: One Day…" (1997). DeHoyos is best known for his pictorial collages, which he says can be "a substitute for my own voice…(allowing) me to say things I may not necessarily feel comfortable expressing in person." But here he drops the facade, showing us his naked fury, retaining only the forms of cutout letters like a ransom note to hang onto a little safety.

David Wojnarowicz, of course, is the poster boy for rage. His "Untitled (Christ)" (1988) with ants running over a crucifix is his notorious scream at the Catholic Church--the video banned by the Smithsonian from the "Hide/Seek" exhibition. But for sheer, cold, specific anger, the poster "Untitled (between C & D)" (1985) is unmatched in its power. It's the very definition of uncontrollable rage. And why not? I suspect most of the human race--certainly me--has felt that rage--that deep need to scream and yell and lash out violently. I don't like to see people act on that impulse, but I understand why they do.

Tom Shooter's brushstrokes and images are manifestations of flailing anger, but the explicit rage is in the title--"Love Me, Fuck Me, Die Me, HIV Me, Kiss Me, AIDS Me, God Me." (2001)

But maybe the most painfully personal portrait of rage and despair is John Sapp's "Emergency Room" (c. 1991). This one broke my heart.

The next group of images also, I think, bespeaks rage, but with overlays of whimsy and irony. Less screaming but plenty overt.

Jack Shields' "Pillhouse" (2001) is adorable. What could be cuter than the little playhouse of many of our childhoods. But constructed of hundreds of bottles of HIV medications? A haunted house for sure (and a lifesaver?). More Frank Moore than Frank Gehry.

Joe Monroe's "AIDS--You can wear it…" (1996) seems like beautiful whimsy. "You can wear it like a cap." "Eat it." But keep looking closely at the little scribbles. "Beat it." "Make it go to hell." Yeah.

An earlier web gallery curator called Derek Jackson's "American Fag" humorous, a reveling in the body. I see something different, especially given the title. I see an angry man, confronting the stars and stripes, a furious artist living with HIV. Eye of the beholder?

Michael Slocum's "Zander Alexander, PWA" cartoon series is so appealing, I almost just made them the whole exhibit. He did them for the PWA Newsline magazine from 1993 to 1995 when he was the editor. They're a series of autobiographical vignettes and I've included six of the panels here.

The first one--Michael's newly defined opportunistic infection-- introduces us to his voice and the way his brain works. It epitomizes what I've always found in the HIV/AIDS community--no wasted words, honesty, humor, no illusions.

Next, in the spirit of the holidays, Slocum brings in family portraits--mom and dad in all their monstrous reality. Those of you who don't know these people have led charmed lives. The rest of us will chuckle and cringe at the same time.

And then a couple of diptychs. I couldn't resist the "Queen for a Day" takeoff because I actually watched that show as a child (and have suffered the lifelong consequences). Slocum's version uncannily replicates the appeal and the horror.

Finally, more relentlessly stark, is the concentration camp dream about AZT. No humor here; no gentle irony. This is raw and sad and painful, which is exactly how people living with HIV and AIDS felt about losing hope that AZT would be the miracle cure.

Which brings us to our final three artists, whose works combine pain and sorrow with the anger.

Raw, sheer terror in Hugh Steers' "Throat" (1991). To me, the mere fact of creating this painting is an act of anger at the epidemic. And unlike any of the others, it embodies a horrifying isolation.

In a more controlled way, which combines the personal and the intellectual, Albert J. Winn's "Blood on the Doorpost…the AIDS Mezuzah," (1996) expresses his rage at the Jewish community for its silence and reluctance to help its own people living with HIV and AIDS. Winn thought about the irony of being a Jew with HIV--hit by a plague. He thought about the legend of the Angel of Death passing over the houses of Jews in Egypt who had smeared their doors with lamb's blood. And so, in a plea to be spared death from AIDS, and in a plea to his fellow Jews to respond to the epidemic, he filled a mezuzah with his own HIV-infected blood and nailed it to a doorpost, as part of an exhibition at a museum in Berkeley CA. After receiving a number of "horrible" phone calls, the exhibition's curator noted the irony that "people are more outraged by the AIDS mezuzah than they are by the AIDS crisis."

I end with a six-panel, gorgeous painting by Patrick Webb from his Punchinello series--a character borrowed from the Italian Commedia dell-Arte and, specifically, some Tiepolo friezes in Venice. Webb liked the wit and heroic grandeur of the character--both humorous and deadly serious--and thought his phallic masked beak turned him into an Everygayman. This work, "P. Cooks/P. Speaks/P. Commutes/P. Comforted/P. Nourished/P. Laid Out" (1996), guides us through the life and death of a Punchinello living with HIV.

I think it took me, with beauty, from rage to peace.