featured gallery for November 2003

Share Your Vision

Viewing The Competition: Art About AIDS at Work
by Linda Yablonsky

Robert O'Donnell is 31 and a native of Brownsville, Texas, who now resides in New York. He has been living with HIV for six years, but he has been drawing for as long as he can remember. No one ever showed him how to do it. In fact, he works as a photographer who specializes, he says, in "people and dogs and cats," which leaves him free to let his more personal work exhibit his indefatigable optimism.

It was not always this way with artists and AIDS. At the time of the first Day Without Art, in December of 1989, no one was feeling very cheerful, and that was a reasonable view. During a reading for Witnesses Against Our Vanishing, a group exhibition at Artists Space organized by the photographer Nan Goldin, David Wojnarowicz railed against the government of Ronald Reagan, the Catholic Church, the Christian right, and the disease itself in a hurt, angry, booming voice that froze the blood and made it boil all at once. People hated him for what he said, for being gay, for being sick, for being an artist whose words and pictures were powerful enough to stir others to action. Other people loved him for the same reasons. I was one. He died two years later and it still makes me mad.

Of course, times change, and attitudes with them. Artists, who are naturally concerned with the perception of ideas as well as images, have often been instrumental in their shift. For example, we no longer have to wear buttons that say silence equals death; we don't need posters to tell us that kissing doesn't kill. Improved medications, greater sharing of information, and better means of communication now mean long-term survival. Yet the HIV population is still growing.

Someone must not be paying attention.

That is why we need organizations like Visual AIDS, and that is what motivated the twenty-one artists chosen for Share Your Vision to compete for inclusion in it. As one might expect, open calls for entries are likely to draw a very mixed bag of responses and that is what happened here. Some of the artists are professionals; others have little or no formal training. For some, making art is therapeutic; for others it is a form of redress for a world turned upside-down.

In a way, it is remarkable that the exhibition's jurors could make so many worthwhile discoveries from such a mixed bag. In another way, it only figures. No matter who they are or where they come from, these artists gave their all to the subject at hand, which is CMV retinitis, an opportunistic infection on the rise, that can cause blindness in a person with AIDS. So let conceptualism keep the upper hand in the larger world of contemporary art. The jury for this show chose work that came from the gut.

O'Donnell's childlike pastel, Life Goes On ..., centers on a cartoony blue eyeball on skinny legs and big feet walking a country road, accompanied by a scampering dog. The eye dominates the rest of the scene, which sits in the embrace of abundant sunshine. "When people have the disease," O'Donnell says, "they can get a cane to help them walk and a dog to give them love, and then the world is a beautiful place where everyone can get help and justice."

No hard feelings there. No false hope either. Just a vision of an ideal that is not out of reach, even if it is still too far.

Amos Beaida has symptoms of CMV retinitis, but he did not know it until he saw the ad for entries to Share Your Vision. Beaida, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1993, lives in a small town in Idaho. He doesn't have e-mail or even his own phone. Now 43, he has worked as a waiter and a truck driver, but he has never been to art school or shown his artwork to anyone. He has never been to a gallery or any large urban center, where artists and people with AIDS congregate to trade ideas and information. Like O'Donnell, Beaida is a true outsider. We're lucky to have found him.

He drew Crazy Eights in pencil and then inked the design with colored felt-tip pens. "I just sat down one day and started to draw and this is what came out," he says of his creative process, which included laminating the piece to protect its surface.

Beaida has made many allover drawings, some even more intricate and idiosyncratic, but all transcribe a visual language that is as compelling as it is mysterious. The graphic at the center of Crazy Eights is no mystery, however. Last year Beaida went blind in his left eye when its optic nerve shattered. His doctor has yet to understand why. Though Beaida, who is also diabetic, has since recovered 50 percent of his vision, it is still impaired. Yet he continues to draw on small, 8-by-10 sheets of paper because, he says, "All the white space so dominates me." That blank, intimidating void is as apt a metaphor for the AIDS as Beaida's drawing is for the unstoppable lines of defense that making art erects against it.

Austin Prentiss is similarly bound to paper and pencil -- and equally compulsive in his drawing. But Prentiss, 34, can work without the horror vacui that attends Beaida's drawing. The open spaces in the weblike Sunrise actually form the architecture of his image. It resembles the work of James Siena, another minimalist whose endlessly variant loops of intersecting, hand-drawn lines have been compared to electronic circuit boards, the shape of the universe, and the energy of human thought. There is less ambiguity in Sunrise. It simply approximates the mazelike patterns of CMV-infected vision, just before it blurs and goes dark.

Steed Taylor is certainly no stranger to blindness. It runs in his North Carolina family, but so far, anyway, not in him. Nevertheless he has seen enough of it to know what to expect. The toll it took on his childhood, he says, was devastating. As an adult, having watched many others contract and cope with CMV, the subject has never been far from his mind. Thought led to angst and then to conjecture: How would his family appear if he had been taken from it? Would his absence be visible? His aggressive treatment of Me and Sudie leaves no room for doubt.

This faith in appearances continues with San Franciscan David Faulk, who finds untapped resources in classic comics. The original Little Lulu, the first feminist in popular culture, was a wily young woman who always held her own against the misogynistic Tubby. For a number of years, she was also the official spokesperson for Kleenex. Faulk's version of the character makes an effective case for the early detection of CMV, as the still-spunky Lulu, nearly flummoxed by her out-of-control extremities, avoids tripping over her arms but pokes herself in the eye. The humor is a little black but who ever died from a tickled rib? What better foil for a crisis than a clown?

Becky Trotter is another artist who has had to watch someone dear to her lose his sight to CMV while she coped with her own AIDS-related problems. She named her portrait Fovea, after the dimple in the retina that gives the eye its sharpest and most sensitive vision, like a digital lens projecting high-resolution images. The eye constantly adjusts itself for distance and varying levels of light, so Trotter fills the background of her primary-colored painting with shifting rods and cones, and then loads her image of a standard eye chart with tokens of her affection.

Words can take on the importance of monuments for someone who is going blind, and horea, an Oakland, California-based photographer from Romania, who spells his name in lowercase letters, focuses on exactly that circumstance in his light box diptych. we are the light ... derives from a print by the celebrated African-American artist, Glenn Ligon, whose smudgy, stenciled canvases typically make perceptive observations of the ways people read -- and misread -- one another in social situations. Whereas Ligon is most concerned with racial identities, horea addresses the horror of the CMV-infected visual artist whose ability to carry on a creative dialogue with his peers is transformed by illness. One word, "floaters," crops up often in this exhibition. It refers to the cottony spots and spidery flashes that swim across the line of vision when, in the normal course of aging, the vitreous gel filling the eye cavity starts to pull away from the retina. Floaters are not uncommon and cause more irritation than trouble, except in people with AIDS, for whom they indicate the presence of CMV and the possibility of oncoming blindness.

William Donovan's freely associated Floater personifies the anxiety of this prospect with the dreamlike image of a supine male figure being swept down a stream of blood-red letter Is, as if he were being carried through hell on a raft of crazy-quilted eye charts. Here, in Donovan's meld of pastel and paint, the vision is deep and layered if the actual eyesight is not.

This reminds me of Carl Apfelschnitt, a well-regarded painter in the 1980s who succumbed to AIDS in 1990. Mortality had long been a theme in his work, as he tempered images of skeletal mummies rising from the grave with golden abstractions of the Tree of Life. In his last months, Carl was hit with one debilitating infection after another and was soon paralyzed. His illness was horrible to witness and worse to experience. But when he went blind, it was as if his vision suddenly cleared. I suspect the blindness may have made Carl's death more peaceful, as he related in a voice filled with wonder that he was now living in a universe shaped by extraordinary colors and beautiful phenomena, and that he was moving through it fast.

Elliott Linwood lets his pictures play to his fears of CMV, so that he can set them to rest. The strong graphic quality and interior focus of his two entries, a nearly monochrome blue digital print titled, Floaters, and its companion, a print of similar scale and color called Blue Yonder, helped win this San Francisco artist top prize in the Share Your Vision contest. Tipping his hat to the gay British director Derek Jarman, Linwood's images refer to the filmmaker's use of blue-screen projections to create an illusion, as well as to the tinted, allegorical portraits of John Dugdale, a leading artist with AIDS who is now nearly blind. Linwood's photographs underscore the affirmative tenor of so much of the art here. They describe the world through ethereal, blurred and silhouetted, larger-than-life figures that seem to emerge from a flash-lit, underwater cave. None of the figures have distinguishing details to identify them as individuals. They exist only as patterns trapped in the diffusive atmosphere of CMV-affected sight, yet their body language suggests a social gathering, or guiding collective consciousness, that leaves no one alone too long.

Max Greenberg also approaches the subject with a striking sense of community. A self-taught photographer living in New York, he was diagnosed in 1991 and can imagine what it is to be vulnerable to blindness. His evocative black-and-white photo, Floaters, addresses the degenerative vision and inevitable isolation caused by CMV retinitis as literally as Rhein's and Linwood's, but Greenberg's image displays an element of fantasy suggestive of a rainy night in film noir. If that quality makes the picture seem too romantic, it also adds purposeful allure. As an advocate of early detection, Greenberg means Floaters to read as a cautionary tale.

"Grandma was a blind painter," reports Thomas R. Somerville, a 43-year-old artist from Rochester, New York. He has spent the last 21 years outwitting CMV, though he has given in to wearing eyeglasses, but that is certainly better than having to get accustomed to seeing between the cottony dark spots -- the floaters -- caused by the infection.

The idealized young man at the center of Somerville's All About CMV is, quite literally, losing his definition. Baffled, he casts a defiant shadow on all that lies around him, pure jargon. The artist has cobbled this text together from various sources in order to explain, in words that grow ever more incomprehensible, what can happen to an otherwise vigorous person affected by AIDS-related CMV retinitis.

Eric Rhein, 42, similarly appropriates medical texts in his wire-on-paper construction, Eye on a Sparrow #3. Its title comes from a hymn that has been part of his Kentucky family's life for generations. He doesn't mind its sentiment. After his HIV diagnosis in 1987, he welcomed whatever stories he could find where faith transcended trouble. As several close friends lost their sight to CMV, the lone sparrow, a social bird of nearly constant song, perfectly suited Rhein's wish for an image that could capture a presence determined to remain luminous in a land of growing darkness.

Thus, when Luna Luis Ortiz explains his work by saying, "It was important for me to let people know that I existed," he is probably speaking for every artist in this show. A native New Yorker, Ortiz has been living with HIV since he was fourteen. Now at 33, having outlived many dear to him, he has begun to photograph friends as they wish to be seen -- mostly, he says, as sexy, glamorous, and haunting. The Ortiz photograph chosen for this show, The Light at the End, is more sentimental than most, but there is nothing wrong with expressing strong feelings, especially when their image can burn a hole in the heart.

David Knudsvig had CMV retinitis as well as CMV of the lungs. He died in New York in 1993, at 46, not long after his first one-man show. It included the graphite-covered, plywood steles that now grace this exhibition, entered on his behalf. On the sort of stacked forms that have become a standard trope in contemporary sculpture, Knudsvig marked the passage of time -- a subject whose urgency remains palpable -- in geometric patterns that allude to DNA, ancient texts, and counting. Since his death, these regenerative abstractions have appeared in the 1995 Whitney Biennial and several other New York gallery exhibitions, and he would no doubt be pleased to see their impact gathering ever more meaning and force.

Michael Golden was born blind in one eye but he is an HIV-positive artist who has not allowed either reduced eyesight or the threat of CMV to put him off his stride. Trained as a printmaker, he has used materials close at hand -- pages from a Braille edition of James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (a novel of spiritual blindness) -- to give expression to his greatest fear, getting CMV in his good eye. The moon imagery that serves him so well recurs in the other part of his second-prize-winning entry. It refers to drug trials that monitor and record a subject's every response. In Golden's work, however, reading the images without the Braille, or vice-versa, reveals only half the story.

Larry JaBell also chooses materials that do not come from the corner art-supply store. In fact, his mordant sculpture, Antiviraled Architecture, is the model for a one-of-a-kind downtown whose landscape will be all too familiar to anyone who must swallow large quantities of pills to maintain a "normal" life.

JaBell is a former architecture student who grew up on an Iowa farm but has lived in Minneapolis for almost 20 years. He has been living with AIDS since 1991. For much of that time he has been fighting off CMV retinitis. His imaginary town, bisected by a "Blood River" and served by a "sero-conversion commuter rail," contains, by his count, no less than 3,142 empty gelatin capsules. Its streets are named for medications. They are also diseases.

The piece has the emotive, handmade appearance of folk art, which it is, but it is also in tune with a contemporary art world that celebrates such conceptual tours de force as Damien Hirst's medicine-chest installations, which play off the minimalist grid while poking our culture in the ribs for its overdependence on medication. JaBell's sculpture also equals, and may even surpass, the obsessive labor of Fred Tomaselli's more decorative paintings, whose daisy-chain patterns, on close inspection, turn out to be strings of riotously colored pills.

Such obsessiveness -- almost a requirement for making art of any consequence -- runs throughout this show, from Beaida's and Knudsvig's patterns to Golden's moons to the unique taxonomies of Barton Lidice Benes. The latter's baroque third-place winner, Reliquary, grew out of his longtime habit of collecting mementos of occasions large and small, from every corner of contemporary life, and making sense of them in his art.

Benes, who is now in his early 60s, admits he can never throw anything away. For him, everything matters. If someone made it, and someone else used it, never mind for what, then that object has meaning and that meaning can deepen with context. Over the last several years, this museologically minded artist has dedicated himself to providing that context. His unpretentious wood constructions, which he has exhibited to acclaim, employ the everyday equivalent of milagros -- religious charms endowed with healing powers -- to record an unofficial history of the AIDS pandemic with a resonant personal touch.

Framed by thick plexiglass and appointed with Victorian cigar-box labels, Reliquary includes such remarkable items as an embalming eye cap, a tissue that once wiped the tears of a dying friend, and the hospital band of another treated for CMV. It is, of course, not the curios themselves that Benes shows to be so marvelous, but their ability to retain a trace of the people who left them behind.

Yves Moralex, 43, is another born collector whose installation of found postcards offers an entirely different perspective on the way our culture treats the eye, be it as an organ, an embellishment, or a window on the soul. Grouped in sequences, or chapters, of 24 postcards apiece, I for Eye #3 creates what we might call the pragmatist's story of the eye, based not on the erotic novel by Georges Bataille but on Jean-Luc Godard's definition of cinema as "truth at 24 frames per second." Each group includes one card for the viewer. Its surface is mirrored. Its subject is, of course, as variable as truth.

Carlos Visintine's photograph makes obvious reference to Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock's classic treatment of voyeurism, but the 40-year-old New Yorker says it is his own window we see in his picture, and its story is autobiographical. Visintine can recall a three-year period, before protease inhibitors came along, when CMV retinitis was a constant threat to his already declining health. For someone with CMV, he realized, any form of voyeurism is more a luxury than a symptom of lechery. But it is also an expression of desire, and what Visintine is after in Windows is the longing to see -- and be seen -- at a distance, and through darkness, every night.

Kurt Weston is also peering through darkness, and that is not just the title of his photograph. Diagnosed with HIV 23 years ago, he has been legally blind, from CMV retinitis, since 1996. This onetime commercial photographer was able to continue working behind a camera after attending the Braille Institute in California, where he lives, and training on visual-assist devices. The self-portrait he made to illustrate his journey beyond -- but not out of -- sight is frightening in its directness and startling in its intimacy. It is also generous. Given to the cause of raising AIDS awareness, Peering Through the Darkness has a look that will not be easy to forget.

Baltimore's Tim Lonergan had no time to deal with the death of his partner of 19 years. It occurred all of one week after his diagnosis. That was in 1989. At the same time, Lonergan learned he also had HIV. He was devastated. Today he credits art school with helping him get back on his feet. He now holds two masters degrees in the fine arts. Whether or not AIDS is the subject of his work, he says, it's always in there. It has to be. It is just not possible to detach it from the rest of his life.

One of the few opportunistic infections Lonergan has not had to fight is CMV retinitis, but he calls his painterly performance photograph, Like Looking through a Veil, a self-portrait. The explanation is simple. "Surviving AIDS," Lonergan says, "is not always a miracle." His friends still die from it. Other people remain indifferent to it. As he understands it, part of his job is to stay on the case. So this is a picture of the artist at work -- go ahead and look. And by the way, it's also okay to touch.