Art & AIDS

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Perception as Muse
In Anticipation of an Upcoming “Art & AIDS” Exhibit, Participants Share Their Perspectives About Creative Inspirations
by Angela Leroux-Lindsey

Osvaldo Perdomo, Emotions, 2013, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 by 24 inches
Osvaldo Perdomo, Emotions, 2013, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 by 24 inches

Throughout history, artists often speak of a muse—a lover, a landscape, a piece of music. Or, in the case of painter Francis Bacon, an unusually striking burglar (Bacon caught George Dyer attempting to break into his home in 1964, and Dyer became a muse for some of Bacon’s most famous portraits).

For one group of artists, whose exhibit debuts at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City on December 19, muse takes a more philosophical form: perceptions of life as an artist living with HIV. Curated by Osvaldo Perdomo and David Livingston, both of whom are members and volunteers at GMHC in New York, this collection of 100 works is the result of weekly art classes at the non-profit organization. I asked several of the participating artists to discuss how living with HIV has shifted their perspectives on creating visual art, and also how they hope their work will enact a shift in their viewers’ perceptions of the HIV-positive community.

Shungaboy, Mathew Deep in Thought, 2013, acrylic marker on paper, 24 by 19 inches
Shungaboy, Mathew Deep in Thought, 2013, acrylic marker on paper, 24 by 19 inches

“After learning about my AIDS diagnosis in 2004, my mind went all over the place,” Perdomo shares. “This piece [Emotions] intends to reflect some of those feelings. To minimize stigma, and to show the compassion, help, and support that are needed when someone is going through a difficult time.” For Perdomo, the therapeutic effect of drawing changed his outlook on life. “I started making art after my diagnosis,” he says. “My GMHC therapist encouraged me to join their weekly drawing class, which happens every Wednesday. I went to the class. That day was the first day I was able to live for two hours without thinking about the virus. It was a wonderful experience!”

The transcendent quality of visual art gives it a special ability to convey the gestalt, to signify an evolving whole of HIV/AIDS activism and history that exceeds its individual parts. This shift challenges viewers to recognize the powerful humanity that exists behind the stigma, and also gives the artists a chance to display how their art celebrates life and imbues their struggle with optimism.

James Horner, Pilate Washing His Hands, 2013, acrylic and mica chip on tarp, 54 by 90 inches
James Horner, Pilate Washing His Hands, 2013, acrylic and mica chip on tarp, 54 by 90 inches

“As a twenty-five-year survivor, I am able to realize the best values in life and what’s petty,” says Livingston. “At the same time, I do not allow my AIDS condition into my art sanctuary, where I’ve felt safe since my childhood. Living with AIDS has influenced me to volunteer at GMHC as a life-drawing instructor and co-curator…As an instructor, I find it very rewarding to help clients to develop their artistic skills. It’s like I’m inviting them into my sanctuary, where we can find peace together.”

Livingston’s charcoal drawings, which often capture the human form in repose, exude a quiet potency. “My subject of choice is a figurative drawing of the male nude, showing aspects of strength and sensibility. In Shower Man, I’m challenging the viewer to see with his soul, not with his head, and for him to appreciate the beauty in the male human body.”

George Towne, Adriano with Coffee Mug, 2013, oil on canvas, 20 by 16 inches
George Towne, Adriano with Coffee Mug, 2013, oil on canvas, 20 by 16 inches

George Towne, an artist whose intimate oil paintings have been widely exhibited and collected, says that his HIV diagnosis altered his artistic approach. “HIV has changed my perspective in making art, most specifically with urgency. I don’t mean to compare what life with HIV is for me today (as someone who seroconverted to HIV-positive in 2005) with people prior to the life-saving medications that started to appear in the mid-1990s. I know that urgency for HIV-positive artists was pretty serious. But for me, after the initial shock-adjustment period of a year or so after finding out the news that I was positive, and I finally got back to an art-making groove, there was still an urgency for me in the seriousness I took to making my work, and also for taking care of my health. I eat better now and I stopped drinking alcohol, and these things as well as having specific shows to work towards has kept me goal-oriented and focused on completing pieces and trying to do what I can to leave a legacy.”

Towne, whose piece, Adriano with Coffee Mug, is a stunning portrait that captures a slice of normalcy that emphasizes the sameness of everyday life—and also the delight that can be found in the contemplation of any moment, even the mundane. “I would like viewers to notice and appreciate the extra time and love I try to put into each piece, I think it may be obvious that my work is stronger now than work I did ten to fifteen years ago. Some of it may be because of maturation, but I think that becoming HIV-positive has given me a new outlook to do my best work with the time I have here in this world.”

David Livingston, Untitled, 2013, charcoal on paper, 17 by 14 inches
David Livingston, Untitled, 2013, charcoal on paper, 17 by 14 inches

Shungaboy, whose bright and contemplative pieces often depict nude male forms, says, “HIV has allowed me to focus on what is important to me in my life, which is creating art. I want people to see the emotion, dynamism, and optimism conveyed through my figures. I want the male body to be seen as beautiful and not taboo.”

This perspective shift is itself a performative event that affects both the artist and the viewer, and has the potential for changing existing narratives. James Horner’s bright, abstract painting Pilate Washing His Hands exudes energy and captures the many-angled dynamism that pervades the show. “When someone views Pilate Washing His Hands, I want viewers to form their own response,” he offers. “When I created the painting, I was thinking how Pilate washed his hands to prove his innocence. HIV-positive people shouldn’t have to prove that they are any less than those not infected.”

The show will be on display through January 5, and the opening on December 19 will be a joyous and well-attended fête—including a special appearance by members of the Imperial Court of New York. Show your support for this wonderful group of artists, and for GMHC and the Leslie-Lohman Museum, who together bring new vigor to the NYC HIV-conscious art scene. For more information, log on to: www.gmhc.org.

Angela Leroux-Lindsey is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.