Art Belongs to Us
Fashion Blogger Richard Haines Talks to Lester Strong About the Consolations of Beauty and Art in the Age of AIDS
Visit the fashion capitals of the world—New York, Paris, or Milan, for example—during their fashion weeks and you may well find fashion illustrator extraordinaire Richard Haines hard at work sketching the men’s collections of various designers for any number of paper publications and on-line blogs, along with his own personal blog What I Saw Today. Catch him strolling through one of the boroughs of New York City—he lives in Brooklyn—and you’ll likely find him sketching what he has described as “the vital and always changing style of guys in New York.” And visit the Web site of Visual AIDS and you’ll find that last February he curated a Web gallery titled “This Belongs to Us,” aimed at capturing “a narrative, a relevance beyond the artist’s time, passion, humor, depth, courage, and a bid at immortality” by artists whose lives have been deeply affected by AIDS, as Haines noted in his curator’s statement about the exhibition.
Haines moved to New York in the mid-1970s to pursue a career in fashion illustration, but soon found himself designing for famous brand names like Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis, Sean Combs, and Bill Blass. Eventually he made his way back to his first love, fashion illustration, which suited him fine. As he notes below: “I love drawing people—it’s endlessly fascinating.”
Fascinating is indeed the word to describe both the fashion sketches by Richard Haines and the pieces he chose for “This Belongs to Us.” His sketches are a celebration of the carefree fun of just being alive. The gallery pieces, on the other hand, with their stark, emotion-laden intensity, remind us that, even in the face of AIDS, beauty has not departed from the world.
Lester Strong: Your amazing drawings clearly show you are fired up by the human body draped in imaginatively designed fabrics. What about fashion illustration appeals to you—as opposed, for example, to portraiture, still life, landscape, all of which also involve design elements?
Richard Haines: Fashion illustration, for me, really is a form of portraiture. When I’m drawing guys I see on the street who I think look amazing, I’m just not looking to capture the clothes, but the person and the personality that motivate and inspire me. What appeals to me is the way people carry themselves, their swagger, sexuality, persona.
I love drawing people—it’s endlessly fascinating. I’ve drawn interiors and still lives, which was fun, but put a person in the chair and I’m in heaven!
In July 2009, you had a show of your art titled “The Line of Beauty” at the New York City gallery Envoy Enterprises. Have you shown at other galleries?
I had a show last April at Jason Andrew’s space Norte Maar, here where I live in Bushwick. That was great because I was able to keep it in the community, and a lot of the guys I drew showed up. I love it here. Some years ago I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn. It gave me the chance to open up as an artist, and I’m very grateful for that. A month after the April show, I had another at Fuller & Roberts, a space in Los Angeles. It was wonderful to see how the “other” coast responded to my work. I sold half of it within the first twenty-four hours. I’ve been so busy the past year I haven’t had the time and focus to consider the next step in showing my work.
How did you first become aware of AIDS?
I was twenty-nine in 1981, so I was in my stride as a young gay man living in Manhattan. There were rumors, an article about Kaposi’s sarcoma in The New York Times, and suddenly the mood started getting very dark. I remember standing at a party with my best friend and a few other people, and he said that in five years most of the people there would be dead. We all kind of nervously laughed, but it turned out he was right. He died, as well as most of my friends, my peers, my generation.
How did you come to curate the Visual AIDS February Web gallery, “This Belongs to Us”?
I met Nelson Santos [associate director of Visual AIDS] socially and he asked me to curate. It felt like a great opportunity. It took about an hour to decide on the art, and about five months to write the text for the show, partially because I felt a bit of an impostor writing about art, and partially because it was moving and at times painful to process so much great art by people affected by AIDS, some of whom had died in different early stages of their creative lives because of the disease. It brought up a lot of memories of the losses in my life. But it was an honor to curate the show. I’m just bowled over by the amount of talent you see in the Visual AIDS archives, and the amount of work Visual AIDS does to keep it all before the public.
How did you decide on which images to include?
I understand portraiture, so I felt I better stick to what I know. I wanted to show various forms of portraiture carried out in different media.
Please comment on the title “This Belongs to Us,” which I find intriguing but somewhat enigmatic. How does it refer to AIDS?
It refers to my generation, and to the current generation, and certainly AIDS plays a huge part in that. This is our history, our story, so beautifully told in the images. Since I moved to Brooklyn, I’ve had the opportunity to know a lot of young guys who are beautiful, creative, dynamic people. They ask a lot of questions about living in New York City in the 1970s and early 1980s: What was sex like pre-HIV/AIDS? What was cruising like before the Internet? So I feel I have a responsibility to pass the information along. I feel at times like a historian, which I love, and the images I included in the Web gallery help tell that story, our story. Hence “this belongs to us.”
Visual AIDS has played an important part in helping to define a genre known as “AIDS art.” Does any of your own work relate directly to AIDS?
I can’t say that it relates directly to AIDS. But I do think of the people I lost to AIDS every day, and I feel that my being on the planet and creating art is a way of honoring them and what they gave me. So directly, no. Indirectly, it informs every breath I take.
For more about Richard Haines and his fashion illustrations, visit his blog What I Saw Today; for more about Visual AIDS, its activities, and its monthly Web galleries, visit www.thebody.com/visualaids.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.