blu sunne: Blog by Lester Strong: Art, Activism, HIV/AIDS

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Lesbian Americans Don’t Sell out!, Dyke Action Machine! poster, used with permission

Went recently to the current exhibition by New York City-based artist Carrie Moyer at the DC Moore Gallery in the Chelsea art district of Manhattan. Wow! Titled Pagan’s Rapture, the show’s art is abstract, playful, whimsical, wildly exuberant in its colors, voluptuous in its appeal to the eye—and apparently the opposite of what one might think of as “political art.” An interesting change in style from an artist who, with photographer Sue Schaffner, formed the activist art group Dyke Action Machine! (DAM!) that from 1991 into 2008 plastered parts of Manhattan with posters in their thousands dissecting and critiquing mainstream culture from a lesbian point of view in an effort to raise lesbian cultural visibility.

Comparing DAM!’s “agitprop” street art to the paintings Moyer has produced and shown over the last few years—including the pieces shown in the 2017 Biennial of the Whitney Museum of American Art—it may seem like these days she has abandoned activism in her work. But a talk with her about art and activism showed that not to be true, and provided an insight into how changed circumstances can produce the need for new ways of presenting art with an activist aim.

“This was a big question in the last century,” Moyer said. “Many, many, many artists/activists wondered about the efficacy of political art. Does art have to be political to effect change? Can art of any sort effect change? One kind of change I think it brings about is in the artist who makes it. It becomes a vehicle for a kind of expression of who we are. It also brings messages to others, in the form of posters people see at marches and demonstrations, or like those Sue and I plastered all over parts of Manhattan trying to make lesbians more visible to the world at large.”

She continued: “On the other hand, thinking about the world we actually live in now, I feel one of the challenges for the next generation of artists/activists is cutting through a set of stereotypes as to what activism looks like. We live in a different world today than even a few years ago. Part of this is the Internet, which provides us with so many more ways of presenting art. Part of it is the larger number of people that participate in the art world through the Internet or smart phones or by going to museums. In making art we have a very large and mixed audience from the quite educated and sophisticated to the very ignorant. Our art has to speak to as many kinds of people as possible, not just the elite art collectors, gallery owners, or art critics.”

It occurred to me: How do these comments relate to living with HIV/AIDS today? We find ourselves in a world very different than the one that gave birth to the HIV/AIDS activism of the 1980s-1990s. The introduction of antiretroviral combination drug therapies and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) have profoundly changed the medical landscape for those living with the disease, as well as those living in fear of catching the disease. This means death has retreated in the face of the new meds, at least among those privileged to live in the developed world where they are available. Even the governmental and social landscapes have changed: There is no longer the panic and hysteria surrounding AIDS, and in the developed world government funding and a legal framework are in place to supply the social services and medical care those living with the disease require. So let’s reframe the comments offered by Moyer about the challenges today for artists and activist art in general in terms of what those challenges mean for art related to HIV/AIDS activism.

AIDS has become a manageable chronic disease, and those living with it these days can live longer and with reasonable care on their part can even look forward to full life spans. It isn’t yet curable, but with the use of PreP as prescribed, no one needs to become infected any longer.

Yet the problems remaining are formidable. According to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, around 39,573 people in this country were diagnosed with HIV in 2016. Of that number, 67% were accounted for through male-male sexual contact, with lesser numbers through heterosexual sexual contact (around 24%) and through injection drug use (9%) (this percentage includes gay and bisexual men who inject drugs).

Gay and bisexual men, then, are obviously at the highest risk for contracting HIV in the United States—I should amend that to say still at the highest risk, just as they were at the start of the epidemic. And none of this even touches on the statistics from those parts of the world where current treatments are much harder to come by. Truly an ongoing crisis, even if we don’t hear much about it in the press anymore.

Afterparty in the Rhizosphere, © 2017 Carrie Moyer, courtesy DC Moore Gallery

An earlier generation of AIDS activists included within their ranks art groups and individuals highly involved in the cause through their art: one thinks of Gran Fury, the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt, and Keith Haring, to name only three of the groups and individuals whose work resounded around the world. All of this was produced before the introduction of the Internet, smart phones, Facebook, Instagram, and other online tools that make the transmission of visual art so easy today, but it nevertheless had a great impact on the course of the epidemic in its early days.

So where are the artists today angry enough to challenge the status quo of a crisis that seems to have no end? Where are the new symbols, images, and messages that could move the world in the direction of conquering the power of HIV once and for all? Has complacency over the progress already made won out over the outrage this virus should still be generating?

Or is there something else going on here? Carrie Moyer’s current exhibition suggested as much to Mia Locks in her catalogue essay “Hot and Sour” that accompanies Pagan’s Rapture when she wrote: “Although they portray landscapes and phenomena from the real world, Moyer’s [current] canvases are far from idyllic. Instead, they delve into latent, unexplored, or unfamiliar places . . . to evoke raw and often conflicting feelings. At a time when the so-called leader of our country is consistently trying to undermine our conception of reality, it feels apt that Moyer’s attention has shifted to interrogating the relationship between surface and depth, artifice and lived sensation.”

Elsewhere in her essay, Locks comments specifically on the painting Afterparty of the Rizosphere: “A ‘rizosphere’ is the area surrounding a plant’s roots that helps nourish and protect them . . . which suggests this party is a celebration of successful germination and impending growth.”

Could something be germinating in regard to AIDS that might just grow into a new wave of activism? I for one hope so. When nearly 40,000 people a year are still contracting HIV in the United States alone, something needs to be done, at least on the educational front if not the curative front. People need to be taught that with the medicines out today, no one needs to turn positive. And the tools we now have available for that educational effort on a very big scale are perfectly suited to the task: the Internet, smart phones, social media.

Art by itself may not be able to effect change, but no change has ever been brought about without messages via word art and images. Artists concerned to defeat AIDS should seize the day and start working toward that goal immediately.


Note: I profiled Carrie Moyer in the April 2017 issue of A&U magazine. Click here to read the feature.


Pagan’s Rapture was on view through March 22, 2018 at DC Moore Gallery, 536 W. 22 St., New York, NY 10011. Moyer’s show Seismic Shift is also on view at Mary Boone Gallery (745 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10151), in collaboration with DC Moore Gallery, through April 22, 2018.


Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.