featured gallery for July 2006

Vital Signs

In 1980 Paul Thek exuberantly called for "An Erotics of Art." His flesh-colored drawing by that name reads like a delirious celebration of bodily fluids. He playfully taunts the mythological and allegorical domestication of countless displays of tantalizing flesh in the history of art, and one is tempted to think, the popular but straight-laced, formalist discussions of Abstract Expressionist painting in the 1950s and '60s. Thek's drawing with its liquid application of paint, seems to out both traditions as sublimations of desire.

Fast forward to Robert Blanchon's 1987 Untitled, a work adopting the rhetoric of a personal ad where a fashionable young man wearing a turtleneck sweater looks intently at the viewer. The accompanying solicitation carries the promise of erotic pleasures: "If you like a man who's 25 Intelligent, handsome, healthy, hot, tall, trim ...," and that's just the beginning. The man's expression in Blanchon's photographic reproduction is pensive and the date of the work casts a deep shadow. By 1987, eros in everyday life (if not in art) had become far more complicated than Rrose Sélavy and even Paul Thek could possibly have imagined. That same year, B. Ruby Rich succinctly noted in the program for the American Film Institute Video Festival: "To speak of sexuality and the body, and not speak of AIDS, would be, well, obscene."1

It is helpful to remind oneself of the fierceness with which Douglas Crimp spoke out against the trap of transcendence and argued for the necessity of a critical, theoretical, activist alternative to the personal, elegiac expressions that appeared to dominate the art-world response to AIDS at that time.2 His essay also appeared in the fall of 1987 at a time when the mortality rate for anyone diagnosed with HIV/AIDS was devastating. The tremendous need for political action as well as for an unbiased debate about how to address this human, social and medical crisis was the context for his argument.

Looking through the Visual AIDS archive, however, it is striking to see how many artists have drawn from their personal experiences with the disease to explore artistic questions and to probe questions of identity. Valerie Caris' 1993 "Vestment" was quilted together using doctor's notes and laboratory reports. In its simple design, the garment suggests both a hospital gown and the vestments worn by Catholic clergy -- a potent combination that questioned the incompatibility of the church's teachings of compassion and its conservative views on sexuality, not to mention its inaction or outright opposition with regard to safe sex practices.

With the development of new medical treatments in the second half of the 1990s came greater success in stabilizing and improving the health of people living with HIV and AIDS, which also presented new physical and psychological challenges. "Listening to Myself: Open" is a programmatic self-portrait by Richard Sawdon Smith in which he depicts himself as a probing, reflective subject listening to his breath or heartbeat with a stethoscope. At the same time his bare upper body, the medical instrument combined with the clinical surroundings that form the backdrop for this portrait render him as a medical object. If Sawdon Smith used his body and the photographic medium to verify his very existence in the most introspective way, Joe DeHoyos turned to the outside. With his "Celebrity AIDS" series, he put the subject/object dichotomy on its head. Sinéad O'Connor was one of the performers who contributed to the 1990 "Red Hot + Blue" AIDS benefit album dedicated to the songwriter Cole Porter, yet DeHoyos' collage treatment of the singer's portrait with Kaposi's sarcoma-like lesions renders her as patient. His artistic intervention fundamentally changes the meaning of the photographic portrait, which no longer registers as a performance snapshot but more like someone giving sound to an angry primordial scream.

The visualization of the AIDS virus, the strenuous medical treatments and devastating side effects were a touchstone for a number of works by Max Greenberg, Joe DeHoyos, Chuck Nanney and Sam Tan. The cheerful appearance of DeHoyos' candy-like abstract circles is undercut by its alarming title, while Greenberg's "Three Month Supply" walks a fine line between gallows humor and grotesque tragedy as the patient seems at the brink of choking on the flood of pills that he is ingesting. Many of these works addressing the AIDS virus, medical treatments and side effects are built around an inversion. This takes an especially potent form in Chuck Nanney's installations, which register at first as elegant aesthetic objects. The work's power stems from its combination of elegant forms with their allusions to high art and minimal purity and the "verbal contamination" introduced by jarring titles like "reticent infection" and "fiery turd."

As the source and indicator of well-being and ill health, a number of thought-provoking projects have centered on body fluids. Sam Tan's associative references to blood range from the poetic to the sinister in works such as "Lifelines" and "Feast 2." Likewise, Robert Blanchon engaged the topic of body fluids with great ambiguity. "Stains 1 & 2" are two c-prints that depict unattractive yellow and brown stains on a pair of men's briefs. Conceptually, the work harks back to Ed Ruscha's 1969 portfolio "Stains," which included samples of sperm, urine and blood next to substances like turpentine, spinach and ketchup on individually labeled white sheets of paper. If Ruscha's portfolio turned the connoisseur's studious delectation in the most minuscule artistic mark inside out by placing his samples in an orderly paper portfolio, Blanchon's work remains firmly tied to the body. The stains' locations are suggestive but his substance(s) remain unidentified. It is the ambiguity with regard to pleasure or pain, health or sickness, deliberate mark versus accidental spill that leaves the work open to interpretation.

Frank Moore's 1993 rendering of a delta of bright red blood vessels arranged in the shape of a thumbprint leaves little space for optimism. "Nascent death," is the inscription of a work laconically titled "Crap Shoot I." Superimposed medical graphs and two dice add flourish to a narrative that reminds us that illness comes not necessarily as an outside intruder but is genetically pre-programmed and lurks just below the surface of our familiar appearances. Informed by the experience of AIDS, Moore's intertwined narratives of ecology and health became increasingly complex in subsequent years. In a 1994 conversation with Holland Cotter, Moore noted that he had "produced propaganda on certain occasions, a poster for Day Without Art, for example, or posters for Housing Works. But unlike the paintings I make, that work operates in a very specific and limited way. The information is being communicated to a targeted audience; it's almost like market research."3

A targeted audience implies a message, and, one might add, it operates in and for a specific moment. Complexity, Moore suggests, is harder to achieve in posters that need to communicate clearly and unambiguously. Not surprisingly, his paintings are just the opposite: Multi-layered, ambiguous, poetic and at times surreal, they serve as a reminder that the subjective and personal stance is equally important. I have no intention to promote a return to the transcendental platitudes, which Douglas Crimp found so offensive and inappropriate in the first place, especially since the need for activist intervention and critical or theoretical responses remains as great as ever. Yet looking at these works, I would hold that some of the most compelling and probing work on the subject of AIDS is articulated from a profoundly subjective and personal position.


B. Ruby Rich, "Only Human: Sex, Gender and Other Misrepresentations," in 1987 American Film Institute Video Festival, Los Angeles, 42; quoted from Douglas Crimp, "AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism" (1987). Reprinted in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, edited by Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung (Malden, MA; Oxford, England; Carlton, Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 148.
Quoted from Holland Cotter, "Art after Stonewall," Art in America no. 6 (June 1994): 115.