Lessons in Beauty, History and Mercy: “Art AIDS America” at TAM

Posted on October 09, 2015, 8:00 am
31 mins


With its growing record of shows that shine a light on ignored or forgotten parts of America’s past, Tacoma Art Museum has become one of the most daring, responsible stewards of history in the region. As a young museum, it doesn’t have much prestige in terms of its permanent collection, but its approach to local and national artists never fails to ignite inquiry, to invigorate and challenge our view of the present.

Examples include: ongoing collaboration with Matika Wilbur for her 562 Project; the solo show of Roger Shimomura, dealing with the history of internment; the stunning Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibit, which could not find a home elsewhere after right-wing protests following its premiere at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery; even the deft handling of the Haub family collection of art of the American west, which includes some questionable representations of the First Nations. In each case, there has been scholarship and collaboration, an understanding of the limits of institutions met with a respect for how they can broaden our understanding.

In Art AIDS America, curators Jonathan David Katz and Rock Hushka are not just continuing the inquiry into queer identities of Hide/Seek as they include responses to the disease across the spectrum of gender and sexual orientation. Men who have sex with men (MSM) are most at risk because of transmission methods, so they are the most numerous group represented in the show, but more pertinently, this association of the disease with urban queer communities played a large part in how the epidemic was stigmatized, and that stigma persists. The politics of HIV/AIDS was fraught with homophobia from the start, which made public discussion impossible—so much so that the Reagan administration was getting laughs by dismissing the crisis and its victims during press conferences. It took years of activism and agit-prop from groups like ACT UP and Gran Fury to get public powers to address the epidemic. The history of that activism has been treated in detail by previous exhibitions and the award-winning 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague. Hushka and Katz frame their show differently, and instead look at how the AIDS epidemic transformed contemporary art and the public perception of it. In doing so, they place everything in a broader context.

Art AIDS America is not a requiem, though individual pieces are often elegiac. It celebrates the courage and cunning of its many visionaries and makes the history of HIV/AIDS vividly relevant to all audiences. Catharsis through the artistic expression of grief does not enlighten audiences who were too young or removed from the crisis to have experienced it personally, and those who lived through those years do not need another reminder of loss and “survivor’s guilt.” Individual works in the show speak their truths directly (be they somber, wry, enraged or celebratory), and then converse with one another to reveal what we have learned and what grew from the destruction.

As many as 1500 works of art were considered when curating this exhibition. That number is itself an indication of the sweeping influence of the epidemic and the prolific output of artists working to address it. About 150 pieces were selected for the show and for the most part are not categorized by thematic content, nor is the show presented chronologically in the strictest sense. There is a wall that is labeled “Memento Mori” and displays the more straightforward depictions of death heads and the like, but one hardly notices this distinction moving through the space. There are more pressing matters.

Before I even get into the show, I must acknowledge the catalog for it, which is an amazing work in itself. This show was over a decade in the making for Hushka, who did his master’s thesis on the work of Gran Fury, an AIDS activist collective that formed circa 1987-88. Katz, who also co-curated Hide/Seek, is an educator and historian who founded The Harvey Milk Institute, and has served at top positions at a number of organizations and schools in the field of queer studies and art. The two of them and other scholars offer over a hundred pages of essays packed with compelling and accessible assessments of contemporary art and how the response by artists working during the AIDS crisis affected theory and the market around art, even when no one noticed or cared to admit it. The thesis: The crisis demanded art that was a direct response to human experience through an individual lens, and this sort of personal directness had been eschewed by artists and dominant curators, whose postmodern idiom required that work be abstract, allegorical, for the audience to receive from an artist who was as good as dead to them.

Museums were thus hostile to work that had a narrative aspect, let alone a provocatively political one. It was necessary for artists to be more covert in order to place work in these settings. One might say they had to go in the closet, but Felix Gonzalez Torres, one of the more influential and successful artists of this mode, used a different metaphor: He compared himself to a virus.

This sort of institutional pressure was contained to the art world. In the larger social sphere, pressure against artists came from “culture warriors,” such as Jesse Helms and other members of the Religious Right. That brings us to the other, more subtle and pervasive conceit in Art AIDS America: the matter of faith and religion.

Theomastix and Mercy

Part of what made the politics of the epidemic so bitter was the way in which it divided a burgeoning front of progressive protest that included sexual and racial minorities, sex workers and women’s rights activists. These groups were finding common ground at a key moment, but the advent of AIDS divided them. Meanwhile, conservative commentators gleefully mocked the dying. The rise of the Religious Right and “values voters” was aided by a collective cheer: “Thank God for AIDS,” the divine punishment of sodomites, drug addicts and fornicators. Today, AIDS has all but disappeared and HIV is manageable with medication, but the fractious politics of that era remain with us.

ACT UP NY/Gran Fury, "Let the Record Show…," 1987/recreated 2015. Photo courtesy of the artists.

ACT UP NY/Gran Fury, “Let the Record Show…,” 1987/recreated 2015. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Beyond the fundamental inhumanity of rhetoric against those suffering from AIDS, the mocking of these groups was an inversion of compassion, the central tenet of Abrahamic faiths, according to most adherents. To reject this tenet would seemingly invalidate any other prejudices claimed as divine mandate, but the Religious Right is a political group, not a spiritual one by any reasonable definition. The movement is unapologetically ignorant of the history of its own religion, opportunistic in using the suffering of others to bolster its position, uninterested in metaphysical or moral consistency. That consistency is sought instead by the arts and humanities, which widen and detail the map of recorded human experience.

For centuries, religion was a common symbolic language for artists to explore abstract, transcendent experiences in a way that others could readily understand. In the case of Christianity, suffering has also been a major part of that visual vocabulary, especially in art produced during outbreaks of the Black Death. Shared suffering was evoked to unify not just human with human, but humanity with the divine. Notably, the Pestkreuze (“Plague crosses”) depicted the crucified Christ riddled with buboes. Physical attenuation was typical of the Gothic era, but these bodies were emaciated to a shocking degree. This was no triumphal Christ. This was the incarnate god experiencing a pain one can only call excruciating—one that was increasingly familiar to those living through the plague. Though works like these can still be found in cathedrals throughout central Europe, art invoking that tradition was condemned as sacrilege by pundits such as Jesse Helms when it concerned the AIDS epidemic.

But all the while, many faith-based organizations were quietly, humbly providing care to the afflicted AIDS. Individual accounts differ: Some report that this care came with condescension and caveats that the dying must repent; others speak of unconditional love. Catholic proscriptions on condoms continue to make prevention efforts less effective, especially in Africa; the church also remains the largest provider of care to HIV+ people in the world. The Episcopal church in New York provided not just care, but an outlet for artists like Keith Haring, who completed a bronze and white-gold triptych altar piece for St John the Divine Cathedral just weeks before he died in April of 1990. (Another one of his altarpieces is displayed in “Art AIDS America.”) Later that year, singer and artist Diamanda Galás performed her legendary Plague Mass concert at that cathedral. In short, the reaction to the crisis by religious entities was not monolithic. It remains a complicated subject, and this exhibit honors that complexity, excludes no one.

Putting aside the anecdotal aspects of the intersection of faith with the disease, the artists who used religious symbolism to convey mercy and tenderness in the face of such horror were actually reinvigorating such representations. Had the dissenters been savvier or just a little humane, they might have embraced these artworks as evidence of a basic human need to unite with the divine—their version of it, at least. Instead, they began to attack any institution or government entity that supported the showing or creation of such work. This tactic persists, as when Republican leadership and religious leaders beset the 2012 Hide/Seek exhibition for including David Wojnarowic’s “Fire in my belly,” which includes scenes of a crucifix covered in ants that they deemed offensive to Christians and unworthy of taxpayer dollars, though it was in many ways an animated, updated Pestkreuz. The video was removed in D.C., but TAM included it in its staging of the exhibition without incident.

In this show, Hushka and Katz include a different work by Wojnarowicz, “Bad Moon Rising,” which collages imagery of the atomic bomb tests and gay porn, microscopic views of blood cells and the martyred body of St Sebastian, who is patron of the plague-stricken and has been a homoerotic figure in artistic representation since the Renaissance. (Unofficially, he is the patron saint of gay men.) All of these elements are placed against a background of American currency.

Adjacent is a work by Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (It’s our pleasure to disgust you),” a huge silkscreened image of a crucified figure wearing a gas mask. The torso is covered by large, red rectangles containing the text of the title with “pleasure” and “disgust” in bold white letters sized for a billboard. This is not a Pestkreuz (though the gas mask implies some sort of biological or chemical threat), but rather a rebuke of the tone-deaf, noxious, pharisaic hypocrisy of the censors.

Kruger’s use of graphic, commercial aethetics as well as Wojnarowicz’s blunt backdrop of money behind the butchered saint bespeak the materialism and market forces that also hindered HIV/AIDS research early on. The Religious Right’s push toward theocracy was an indication of its worship of power, but the commercialism of the 80s and lionization of Wall Street was the worship of mammon. These artists could see the error in that, and how it was actually killing people—has always killed people—and we are all implicated to a degree. We don’t have to be a Martin Shkreli. A short video clip by Carl Tandatnick nearby in the gallery shows how easily the crisis was absorbed into the mundane flux of advertisement at the time. In 1994 and 1995, he showed a brief clip on the giant screen in Times Square throughout the day. It simply read, “Today is Day Without Art” and then “When is Day Without AIDS?” The screen goes dark for a moment before an advertisement for the B-movie Screamers fades in.

In another corner, Catherine Opie’s large scale portrait “Ron Athey/The Sick Man (from Deliverance),” arranges its figures like the deposition of Christ with a tall, black negative space overhead where the cross would be were it not absent, but implied. Elsewhere, Daniel Goldstein’s “Icarian I Incline” recalls the Shroud of Turin. Formed of the leather from an actual seat in a gym (the placard includes “sweat” in the materials) it is an actual relic of the time before HIV and, in retrospect, of the cruising culture that helped propagate the virus before it was known. The visual association between a shroud (or THE Shroud) required no intervention by the artist. It happens spontaneously for the viewer based on the peculiar weathering of the material by countless bodies. And once the source is known and the association has occurred, it is up to the viewer to decide whether to be merely repulsed or to be reminded of mortality, sacrifice, redemption, resurrection, mercy.

It is not just Christology that is employed. Albert J Winn’s “Akedah” is a simple enough photo, showing a man’s bare arms and chest wrapped with a phylactery. A bandage in the crook of the elbow indicates an injection or blood draw, making a frank connection of the religious, prayerful phylactery with phlebotomy—faith with mortality. It’s ambiguous and its affect (for the viewer putting oneself in the place of the man) is one of uncertainty. I found it strangely optimistic, but that is almost certainly an indication of my age and the time in which we live.

A Gathering of Flowers

But what of the dozens upon dozens of other works? I would be remiss if I didn’t give some attention to the wide variety of works that are not explicitly religious in content, for some are no less mystical, while others are uncomfortably direct about the physical reality of the disease.

Izhar Patkin’s sculptural painting “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity,” was created in 1981 and, as far as the curators know, it is the first artwork created on the subject of AIDS. Patkin was observing the first appearances of Kaposi’s Sarcomas in young MSM, a telltale sign of advancing AIDS (and the reason it was first referred to as a “gay cancer”). His queasy painting is jaundiced and bursting off the frame with open wounds. A nearby artwork treats the appearance of KS with a little more delicacy, as merely subdued splotches in an abstract expressionist mode (Darren Waterson’s “Isenheim Field”). Under other circumstances you might pass by without noticing them, but once seen they can’t be unseen.

Condoms abound. Artist Jenny Holzer’s condoms are printed with cheeky text like, “Men Don’t protect You Anymore” and “Expiring For Love is Beautiful But Stupid.” Viewed in the same room as a large painting of a Japanese courtesan by Masami Teraoka, that phrase had a special resonance for me, and it will for others who are familiar with the romanticized concept shinjuu (double suicide between two people bound by love), prominent in the Edo era. Painted in the style of mokuhanga, also prominent at that time, Teraoka’s courtesan is not about to expire for love, let alone business; she’s tearing open a condom with her teeth while addressing her client—a skeleton only partially visible on the right side of the canvas.

The sensuously painted courtesan fills the majority of the surface, but the skeleton is still there, beckoning. It’s typical of Japanese aesthetics, which embrace melancholy and impermanence, but in a room full of vanities and death’s heads, it’s actually one of the more lighthearted depictions. Nearby, a large chest lies open and full of sand. Karen Finley’s “Written in Sand” invites attendees to write the name of a loved one lost to AIDS in the sand, then gently wipe it away.

Bill Jacobson (born 1955), "Interim Portrait #373," 1992. Chromogenic color print. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Bill Jacobson (born 1955), “Interim Portrait #373,” 1992. Chromogenic color print. Photo courtesy of the artist.

On the other side of the wall, Nan Goldin’s “The Plague” is a grid of sixteen portraits, showing men and women in isolation, in embraces, or bestowing a final kiss to one dying. (David Wojnarowicz is among the faces.) There are quite a few works in the show that have this documentary style, but which nonetheless work powerfully as portraiture just in terms of the emotions conveyed and the beautiful compositions. One of the more striking and famous examples is a portrait taken of Ken Meeks in 1985 by Alon Reininger. The photographer had been recording aspects of Meeks’ life for a story about the crisis, and in this moment, Meeks appears frightened, weary and gentle all at once. He died three days after the photo was taken. Photos by Ferenc Suto and Bill Jacobson deliberately dissolve their subjects into ghostly forms. These works speak for themselves.

There is a marked difference between this photography and that by artists taken after the first cocktails were created to halt (or at least slow) the advance of the disease. Self portraits by Kia Labeija are glamorous and vividly colored. Labeija was born with HIV, and these portraits are collectively titled “24,” referencing the age of the artist at the time and her 24th floor apartment in Manhattan. Might I add, it’s a significant number for time (hours in a day), and that Labeija has been able to live and be healthy to this age indicates that it is indeed a new day.

Kia Labeija (born 1990), "24," 2014. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Kia Labeija (born 1990), “24,” 2014. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Medications are now not just halting the advance of the disease in those who have it, but are preventing new infections. Truvada, when taken consistently as a one-pill-a-day regimen, has been shown to prevent new infections 100 percent of the time. Joey Terrill makes a cheeky homage to that in his mixed media work, “Still-Life with Forget-Me-Nots and One Week’s Dose of Truvada.” Love in the modern age…

There are a few other examples of charming tenderness that feels carefree: the photography of John Arsenault and Steven Miller, and the video “Lollypop” by Kalup Linzy. But this carefree, humorous approach is not limited to this generation. Ray Navarro’s tongue was planted firmly in cheek when he created the photos for a triptych titled “Equipped” (meaning well-endowed, hung), which pairs photos he has taken of a wheelchair, a walker and a cane with gay bar slang, respectively, “Hot Butt,” “Stud Walk” and “Third Leg.” Navarro died before completing the fabrication, so the task went to his friend Zoe Leonard. Even in extremis, there was a need to create, to leave a testament, to have a laugh.

In such a dense show, these moments of humor are necessary, for it is dense to a claustrophobic degree. The lack of respite as one moves between artworks is exhausting…but only the slightest taste of the inescapable anxiety felt during the crisis, as young and old withered and died in one’s midst. The museum does provide a retreat for visitors in the form of a reflection room, where one will find yellow card stock on which one can write a message regarding how AIDS has affected one’s own life. The wall is already filling up, and an inventive, anonymous visitor used the card stock to construct a small pinata hanging among the rest. It’s a nod to the most playful piece of work in the exhibit, Eric Avery’s congeries of small pinatas shaped like the HIV virus and filled with condoms. If only beating the virus were as simple as beating a pinata…but, it seems to imply, stopping its advance may be as simple as using a condom. It can’t hurt, at least.

There is great variety in Art AIDS America, but I think the most memorable and affecting pieces are the elegies, the pieces that admit to absence in their gentle way. Shimon Attie’s “Untitled Memory projection of Axel H.)” is a photo of a projection in a dim, tidy room—a ghost we can see. A small section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt is hung near the entrance to the exhibit, giving us the names and lifespans of a few victims of the disease, including Seattle’s own Cal Anderson. Pacifico Silano creates a different sort of paneled hanging: 100 pictures of faces from the centerfolds of “Blueboy Magazine.” They are faces of longing, of Eros and Thanatos, objectified for secret desires and fragile in spite of the masculinity and virility that they were meant to epitomize.

But of all the composite things in the exhibit, the most striking is the twenty-foot high hanging screen of sewn flowers by Jim Hodges. In another context, it might just be a sort of kitschy design. In this context, it is a sort of symbol for the whole show, which is at the very least a visual anthology of three decades—a gathering of flowers, in all their beauty and impermanence.


Hushka and Katz make a compelling case for the influence of the art of AIDS on contemporary art as a whole, but they do it mostly in the catalog. The average visitor without much interest in art history and theory will still be rewarded by the comprehensive, vivid intimacy the works (and the insightful placards accompanying them). This will be the first and last show devoted to the epidemic that most visitors will see. How lucky we are…for two reasons. First, its an excellent show. Second, we seem closer than ever to eradicating the virus for good.

But we will not soon be rid of tragedy and loss as a whole, nor will the survivors of the era ever forget those who died. Empathy is as vital as ever, and the need for it is reverently conveyed throughout Art AIDS America, while instructing us against pessimism.

Did it have to be the AIDS crisis that brought this sort of reckoning back into the arts? No. Is it still proper to mourn, to feel rage? Yes. Is there still reason to celebrate the lives of those lost. Absolutely. This exhibit teases out all of these reactions and questions and more, offering greater emotional and historical clarity as we face this legacy and losses to come. Our optimism may extend from knowing that in the face of destruction, we may still find compassion, courage and creation. This is the proof.

Update – October 10, 11:00 PM: In the original text, Daniel Goldstein’s piece was said to have come from a bathhouse. The building was actually a gym, and the text has been corrected to reflect that.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.