With wit and passion, artist Richard Vechi explores sexuality, faith and living as a long-term survivor
by Lester Strong
Photography, painting, videos, constructions, installations—New Jersey-based Richard Vechi has produced work in a number of media, bringing to his art an imaginative vision that is at once witty, sexy, and provocative. “My art is very personal—more than a little about self-exploration,” he said when interviewed recently, and these days both his art and his life are informed by his experiences with AIDS.
Vechi was diagnosed with the disease in 2007, but his self-exploration through his art began much earlier, dealing with the themes of sexuality and vulnerability. “I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in suburban New Jersey, and Catholicism played a major role in my life. It was something I had to struggle
with: my sexuality and Catholicism. We were taught that sexual feelings for other men were wrong, were evil, not acceptable to God or society. As I grew into my sexuality, the Church and Catholicism had a grip on me, so it was only in college and graduate school that I started to explore those feelings and challenge this kind of thinking.”
The exploration and challenge met head on in his art as he studied photography with some of the greats in the field: Arthur Tress, Duane Michals, and Nan Goldin, among others. As Vechi notes on his website, “It was under the intense scrutiny of such notable photographers that [I] began [my] work with male erotica.…”
He used himself as the model. “I shot myself nude because of the vulnerability you feel when you have no clothes on. It was difficult finding models, and even when I did have models, it was difficult getting them to interpret the feelings I wanted. So I became my own model. I was young. I was in decent shape.”
Vechi’s work has not been just about sexuality, however. “I’m interested in dreams and surrealism,” he said during the interview. “I like the psychological aspect of those things, and try to incorporate that into my work. I’m interested in the cubist notion of flattening out the picture plane. I’ve explored landscape. I was always attracted to abstraction, and I love color.” All those aspects are apparent in his work, where color, form, and image meld to produce an atmosphere at once appealing to the eye and intriguing to the mind, even eerie on occasion. His art is meant to grab the viewer’s attention and hold onto it—and it seldom fails to do so.
Vechi has been prolific over the years, with his work appearing in many shows in New York City and New Jersey, and in a number of publications. But when AIDS intruded into his life, it all nearly came to a halt.
“In March 2007, I came down with what I thought was the flu,” Vechi explained. “But I’d never experienced a flu like that. I had a 104 fever, didn’t eat for
almost two weeks because I couldn’t keep anything down, and lost twenty or twenty-five pounds. My whole body ached. I was living in my grandmother’s house, in the basement, alone because she had just died in January. Finally the fever subsided, and I moved myself upstairs to her bedroom, where the bed was more comfortable than the pullout sofa I’d been sleeping on.
“After the symptoms subsided, I bounced back some, gaining a little weight. In June I went and got tested, coaxed by my partner of thirteen years. I’d gone pretty regularly to be tested, every six months or so. But this time I was positive. I was shocked. It was such a sunny, beautiful day, but as I drove home it felt like one of the darkest days of my life. Everything had changed, and not for the better.
“Soon after that, my boyfriend broke up with me. We were having some issues. He was still negative, but got very frightened and just kind of abandoned me. I was very hurt, and sank into a really deep depression, feeling suicidal. I had no job. I had no health insurance. I was a struggling artist. It was an extremely difficult time for me, and I stopped working on my art for several years. I pretty much didn’t want to be here.”
Fortunately there were organizations like Buddies of New Jersey and Friends for Life, to which he turned for support. “Without groups like that,” Vechi said, “I don’t think I would have made it. I had a number of issues in regard to my health. First, I had to go to a public clinic for my meds, which was horrifying in itself. I feel for people who have to do that. I stood on those lines, and wish I’d been up to photographing it to document the feelings of hopelessness and despair so palpable all around me.
“Like a lot of people who experience AIDS, I felt it was a death sentence—that sooner or later I was going to succumb to some sort of illness that was going to do me in. Because of the meds, we’re all living a lot longer now. But AIDS is an ever-present thing in your mind and sort of consumes you. You have to be on a certain medical regimen, you have to take the meds at a certain time every day to make sure your viral load doesn’t replicate itself, and the meds themselves have their own side effects, like the wasting syndrome I experienced when I first went on them.”
Vechi continued: “I also developed ulcerative colitis, which was so severe I was put in the hospital several times. Between the AIDS meds and those for my colon, I started developing liver problems and my kidney levels were elevated. It felt like Russian roulette. Any moment something was going to go wrong.”
Buddies of New Jersey and Friends for Life put him touch with a support network of people who could help him sort through his medical, financial, and psychological issues. Although physically very compromised, he returned to work so he would have medical benefits and “not have to go to the clinic and wait on line,” in his own words. Then ulcerative colitis put him in the hospital another time, and he was finally declared eligible for permanent disability, which meant he was eligible for medical benefits without the need for a job (which in any case he wasn’t well enough to hold onto anyway).
Vechi also credits Friends for Life for introducing him to another important part of his post-diagnosis life: yoga.
“I think everyone who is positive blames himself or herself,” he explained. “I know I did. How did this happen? How could I have let this happen? I had to deal with a lot of self-hatred and blame. I had to learn to forgive, and above all to forgive myself. Yoga and Buddhist philosophy played an important part in helping me learn to do that. One Thanksgiving a few years ago I was watching TV, and people were talking about what you’re thankful for and appreciative about in your life. I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m relatively healthy now, and I have all my limbs. But I still have this sense of loss, of sadness and hopelessness. I feel like I have nothing to feel thankful for. Why? And if I feel this way, what is the point of being here?’ Then it just hit me: I’m thankful for my HIV. It changed my life, made me more aware, more self-aware. It made me a better person, more compassionate, more caring. Without it, I wouldn’t have started studying yoga, and yoga has taught me how important it is to care for myself, to take full responsibility for myself, my body, my life. It’s an ongoing battle. There are days when I’m at rock-bottom again. But I work to feel grounded, and meditation has helped in that. If it weren’t for HIV, I don’t think I would have ever explored that area.”
The result is that Vechi has reengaged with his life and his art. These days he has a new partner, “who has really been pushing me to get back to my work; he’s changed my life,” according to Vechi. In 2013, 2014, and already in 2015, work by him has appeared in Next magazine and in several exhibitions in New York City and New Jersey, and he has become involved with Visual AIDS.
Vechi’s art has always oscillated between wit and passion, and sometimes blended the two. Take his 1993 Blessed Mary video installation peep booth, a comment on the conflict he felt between his sexuality and his Catholic upbringing. In that piece, the emphasis is on wit. In his 1991 My Cuts Your Scars (a photographic self-portrait), on the other hand, passion is most obvious. Again Vechi relates the piece to the difficulties he felt dealing with his sexuality in the face of Catholic doctrine. “It’s about the things we do to ourselves that leave scars—the things I did to myself that left scars,” he said in a telephone conversation. “I think about the wounds as stigmata. I’ve come to understand I have to embrace those wounds in order to heal them.” Then in his 1996 self-portrait Behind Bars, he blends wit with passion by flattening out the picture plane in a cubist-influenced way to produce an image of someone who feels imprisoned by his own anguish.
Turning to more recent work following Vechi’s AIDS diagnosis, there is his 2015 mixed-media piece Misfortune Cookies. Wit is evident in the play on AIDS meds as Chinese fortune cookies. But there is an underlying upset and sadness when one realizes that for people lucky enough to have access to those meds, the individual “misfortunes” they contain read as side effects like Neuropathy, Retinopathy, Kidney Disease, Liver Failure, Depression, and Suicidal Thoughts. And in his recent landscapes—the 2014 Notre Dame, Paris, for example—he produces an eerie beauty. According to Vechi “solitary objects are stand-ins for me” in his art, and isn’t it possible in this image to detect a comment about an individual who has learned that one cannot escape one’s past but must learn to live with it in all its beauty and the pain one feels it has caused?
Indeed, apart from the mesmerizing images Vechi has produced, one of the main lessons viewers can take away from his life and art is that only by acknowledging both the pain and the beauty can one move on to a happier place.
For more on Richard Vechi’s art, visit his website: www.richardvechi.com.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.