Curtis Carman

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Defying Conformity

With His Unconventional Artistry, Curtis Carman Makes a Statement and Makes Us Laugh
by Chip Alfred

Giving Body, 2004, collage, 10 by 8 inches
Giving Body, 2004, collage, 10 by 8 inches

Curtis Carman is a man of many talents—a sculptor, performance artist, photographer, and drag queen. He’s innovative, entertaining, and unpredictable. An internationally exhibited artist who found his calling later in life, Carman’s work and philosophy are as individual as he is. “Life is not one size fits all; normal is a setting on a clothes dryer,” he explains. “Appearances are deceiving; the personal is political; and perception is just that.”

Born into a “straight, white, Catholic” community in a small New England town, Carman was always a visual person, but according to his family, art was something to be appreciated and enjoyed. It wasn’t something you would support yourself doing. At first, he tried his hand at painting. “I was just trying to make pictures that looked like other pictures,” he admits. Diagnosed with HIV in 1995, he started to find his creative voice the following year—after he became seriously ill. “My viral load was off the charts and an opportunistic infection had left me quite debilitated,” he recalls. A long recuperation was followed by a lot of introspection, soul searching and unanswered questions. “My life has changed. What am I going to do with my time?”

Encouraged by legendary artist and cultural icon Jack Doroshow (aka Flawless Sabrina), his partner for more than twenty-five years, Carman enrolled at Hunter College, where he ultimately earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. Going back to school in his mid-forties was “a blessing to me and a curse to some of the faculty, because you don’t accept everything as a given.”

The first work Carman presented in sculpture class was A Day in the Life. It’s literally a transparent box filled with the forces that

A Day in the Life, 2001, mixed media, 10 by 4 by 4 inches
A Day in the Life, 2001, mixed media, 10 by 4 by 4 inches

impacted his journey learning to live with HIV. The medications displayed in the sculpture represent one day’s dosage of HIV medicine. The condoms are there as a reminder to the artist who came of age in the era of “free love” that “safe sex” was the new phrase to live by. The hypodermic needle aims to define AIDS as something other than just a gay disease. The coins signify Carman’s concern about the economic ramifications of AIDS and the financial stress he endured due to his life-threatening illness. The red ribbon is a symbol of caring.

“When I was creating this work for class, I wanted to say loudly, albeit figuratively, that ‘I have AIDS.’ I also wanted to put on display the extraordinary hurdles that had to be overcome every single day of dealing with HIV,” he declares. “It merely represented one single day of dealing with the horrible circumstance I was faced with. And, I wanted it to be crystal clear, hence the container.”

For his classmates, Carman’s intended message was anything but clear; nor was the piece a welcome source of discussion. He was glad he documented the work, but after his perspective on his HIV status changed, he destroyed the piece. “It became too difficult to look at any more.” As time passed, “I had consciously chosen to move from ‘having AIDS’ to ‘being HIV-positive.’ I commuted a ‘death sentence’ to a fulfilling life. It wasn’t accomplished in a day, a week, or a year, but in an attitude.”

Carman’s attitude is affected by his health issues and infused with his over-the-top comical drag persona, Curtsy. “My experiences as a drag

Fruit and Nut Dark Chocolate (from “Big Hair/Sweet Beauty” series), 2012, collage and paint on canvas, 11 by 14 inches
Fruit and Nut Dark Chocolate (from “Big Hair/Sweet Beauty” series), 2012, collage and paint on canvas, 11 by 14 inches

queen active in gay culture and the effect of AIDS on my life influence my outlook on life, art, and the cosmos.”

Curtsy has an exuberant lust for life with a humor all her own. “Moments when I’m most inspired are when I put together a look and I just giggle,” Carman says. “First and foremost, I want people to see my work and smile.” In Drag Queen Spaceship, an installation he designed in college, “I sought to make a colorful environment that would be a ‘world of my own making’ and could house numerous elements of conceptual drag art.” But for Carman, any work of art he creates isn’t finished without one essential element. “The viewer is what completes the work—their takeaway is the greater part.” Observing a man intently gazing at Drag Queen Spaceship, he asked the viewer what captured his attention. When he received the simple reply, “shiny things,” Carman concluded that the man’s child-like response acknowledged the mesmerizing effect of the piece and its ability to transport the viewer to another place and time.

Utilizing recycled materials and found objects, Carman, fifty-four, describes himself as “a producer of conundrums and fanciful scenarios. Frivolity, wit, travesty, and drama are at play in my vision, setting a stage for freedom and individuality. I seek to entice the viewer into questioning the architecture of identity.”

A series of collage and paint on canvas entitled “Big Hair/Sweet Beauty” exemplifies the artist’s whimsical approach to exploring the way aspects of identity are constructed and perceived. For those of us old enough to remember penny candy, the backdrop for the collection is reminiscent of a confection known as candy dots or buttons. Symmetrical strips of pastel “polka dollops” stuck to white strips of paper provide a parallel to the multitude of pills in Carman’s daily medication regimen. “Pills of all different colors—this is part of my life,” he says.

In one of the works, Fruit and Nut Dark Chocolate, the artist incorporates candy bar wrappers and a big 1980s hairdo to make a statement about embracing our differences as part of a spiritual quest. “I’ve always thought of one’s identity as a multifaceted jewel to be celebrated for its glow and allowed to sparkle.”

These days Carman is still creating and exhibiting his art—imbued with his irreverent countercultural approach. In the future, he would like

Recumbent Semi-nude, 2013, ink and gouache on paper, 4 by 6 inches
Recumbent Semi-nude, 2013, ink and gouache on paper, 4 by 6 inches

to see his work more broadly accepted, and he envisions branching out into writing fiction—possibly moral fables. He’s also become more delicate communicating his message about the concept of identity. “You never know what people are going to say or think when they see you all dressed up [in drag]. It makes you think about who you really are because you have this mask, this disguise.” When asked how he imagines himself going down in history, the eclectic artist replies in true Curtis Carman form, “as a knucklehead who cares.”

For more information about Curtis Carman, visit www.visualaids.org/artists/detail/curtis-carman.

Chip Alfred, Editor at Large of A&U, is a nationally published freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.

Read the article in the April 2013 digital issue by clicking here.

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