featured gallery for May 2002

The Presence of Absence

In a "not-as-bad-as-it-was, post-AIDSish" time, to use the words of Steed Taylor, the Visual AIDS' Archive exists as both the keeper of history, bearing witness to the resilience of a community confronted with overwhelming loss, and as the recorder, imprinting the personal stories of living and deceased, recognized and unknown, HIV/AIDS artists. The eight artists selected for this presentation focus on creating a language connecting their internal and external worlds, using conceptual strategies, materials or objects to explore notions of the traces, belonging and exclusion, presence and absence, visible and invisible. And what for me lends poignancy to the work is that it is the absence of the body that implicitly makes it so present in these works.

A self-taught artist, Simmonds employs the weaving techniques and craftsmanship he learned from his Sioux Indian grandmother to create Spirit Baskets, a series of sculptures commemorating PWAs. Stitched and woven from clothing donated by the families and friends of those who died, the Spirit Baskets are transformed into the site of collective histories. The meaning of the work is produced not by the metaphor of the basket as memory urn/container, but by the traces of leather jackets, T-shirts, and oxygen tubing belonging to the deceased, which the artist has converted in a skein of material intimately interwoven and entwined together.

Within its minimalist form and materials, Gonzalez-Torres' Untitled (Perfect Lovers) introduces a narrative element that involves the themes of "Vanitas," and alludes to the passing of time, life, and the imminence of death. This intensely lyrical portrait, which was created during the terminal illness of the artist's partner, presents two identical commercial clocks placed side by side, indicating the same hour. And while the physical bodies of the lovers are absent, the work clearly speaks of congenial symbiosis, relationship, and domesticity. The two clocks, which are set to tick in unison to the actual time of any country in which they are exhibited, offer a metaphor for a continuous present and eternal love.

A different kind of pairing is seen in Blanchon's Stain 1 + 2, which consists of two photographs representing two adjoining pairs of stained male underwear, one seen from the front, the other from the back. Here too the bodies are absent, but the semen stains trace erotic encounters, alluding to issues of sexual politics in a more direct way. Ironic in its reference to "little boys dirtying their pants," while erotically charged in its seeming casualness, the images of semen stains imprinted to the very piece of clothing that ordinarily conceals it are presented as mere evidence in pristine frames, as a frontal assault that subverts any kind of voyeurism. Viewed in the context of the early 1990s, when the discourse on homoerotic art was both affirming itself and being put in question by a growing conservatism in pursuit of "family values," Blanchon seems to be saying, "we're here, we're queer, deal with it."

Andrews' Album (Boys Kissing) presents a series of numbers impressed on a white parchment, running in rows and columns that can be read in any direction. Whether it manifests the kissing of two boys or of many, the work mimics some form of indexing, some recording of moments that could be read as a database of information, a minimalist collage, or a topography of desire, memories, or loss. It is this range of connotations that generates in the viewer's mind an infinite number of scenarios to imagine, of traces, of stories hidden in the filigree of the numbers' randomness. In Demo #3, the frame is filled with a crowd of bodies squished together and holding up banners emptied of text and images. This mass demonstration, which cannot be pinpointed geographically or ideologically, seems to occur in an archetypal vacuum waiting to be filled. Unlike the ideological banners that often display ready-made slogans, these textless banners function like a dialectical process; they become blank slates recreated anew for each viewer to inscribe his/her own hopes, wishes, desires, rage, or requests. The active/passive roles have been reversed, and as Andrew described it, "The viewer has become the subject of the pictures, an expectant crowd eagerly awaits his next move."

Issues of absence and traces are also found in Taylor's work. In Me and Sudie the artist has blurred his image with a black ink marker to efface himself from a childhood snapshot where he stands side by side with his sister in a suburban setting. On one hand, the artist's gesture suggests how loss, memory, and time all conspire to erase one's traces; on the other, the visible trace created by the erasure eloquently re-asserts the artist's presence in the photograph. With Birthday Knot, created in 1999, Taylor commemorated his birthday by literally tattooing the street in Hartford, CT, where he was born. Using black, high-gloss paint, the piece involves a complex architecture of graphic elements in overlapping shapes incorporating the names of the first 40 children born in Hartford on the day of the artist's 40th birthday. In various cultures, tattoos are traditionally used as a marker of difference as well as of inclusion and exclusion. By marking the street of his birthplace the artist inscribes himself as a permanent visual presence, and uses the trace as a metaphor for belonging, leaving evidence that he was born and grew up there.

In Lucas' painting, Towels in the Shower Room, the human figure is absent, yet on the level of possible narrative the fragments of a tiled wall and floor, together with a row of white towels in a diffused yellowish light, echoes a memory of the gay bathhouses that were closed in the mid-1980s, silencing a sexual culture of communal sex referred to in Douglas Crimp's essay "How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic."

Presence is made manifest in Winn's black and white photograph of vacant beds in a Jewish summer camp by the very melancholy and emptiness of the scene. The work, which is part of a series recording abandoned sites of Jewish culture such as yeshivas and Catskill hotels, is endowed with memory and evokes a moment in time in which something took place and emotions concerning it were left there. Of the project Winn, whose work has explored the feeling of isolation as a gay Jewish man living with AIDS, wrote in a letter to Jan Zita Grover, "It is what I seem to do over and over again, I reframe my disorientation into a context that I can find some meaning. Again, my Jewish experience. The empty spaces of childhood camp, the change in a society that leaves a deteriorated hotel as a relic...." Another form of presence is sensed in Morrisroe's Untitled, which allegorically evokes a human presence by featuring a precious pair of golden shoes (suggesting perhaps some ephemera of a glamorous past?) presented in splendor on a white pedestal. Next to them in a red field on the floor are displayed the imprint of two footprints, also evoking a silent witness to the past presence of a human being.

The ten works selected for this on-line show, create presence by talking about absence, or as René Magritte commented, "In the invisible, one still has to distinguish between the invisible and hidden."