Using fiber as one of his media, queer artist Ben Cuevas takes a softer route in his art practice to deliver hard-to-swallow concepts on HIV/AIDS & more
Text & photos by Sean Black
In recognizing the work of artist Ben Cuevas in 2016 for his vital, creative contributions to the discourse surrounding the AIDS pandemic, New York Times heavy-weight art critic Holland Cotter gave Cuevas a hefty nod. His art review, “Art of the AIDS Years: What Took Museums So Long?,” gave Cuevas a shout-out that cemented him as one of the artists who is “adding work that is politically complicated, referential without being nostalgic and absolutely unambiguous about the desirability of difference. Not bad.”
Good for Ben. He is making colossal strides by weaving into the mix, life-saving dialogue among hipsters and blue-chip artists alike and being rightfully lauded. The aforementioned article notes Cuevas alongside the ranks of A-listers such as Keith Haring, Ross Bleckner, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andres Serrano.
Originally, using knitting as a meditative practice which he learned from a close friend, Ben began to explore and challenge the gendered constructs and physical limitations of his craft excerpted from his website. “From the political to the metaphysical, my practice is steeped in queer feminist ideologies, with an awareness of the mind, body, and spirit. My work spans a wide range of disciplines including installation, sculpture, photography, performance, video and sound. Often incorporating several of these elements into any given piece, I make use of digital media as a means of documentation.”
As one of the more active member artists of Visual AIDS’ Artist+ Registry (which is open to all HIV-positive artists) Cuevas is availing himself frequently to speak about his work in order to raise awareness. Artist+ Registry is the largest database of works by artists with HIV/AIDS. Through the electronic repository of works housed by Visual AIDS, it offers a unique resource to inspire and educate the public. Visual AIDS assists artists with HIV/AIDS, while preserving a visual record of their work and helping them reach new audiences. Its mission is to utilize art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue, supporting HIV-positive artists, and preserving a legacy, because AIDS is not over.
Visual AIDS’ Program Director Alex Fialho has worked on a number of occasions with Cuevas, notably in the recent publication DUETS: Ben Cuevas & Annie Sprinkle in Conversation. Recognizing Cuevas for his efforts Fialho shares, “Working with Ben Cuevas has allowed Visual AIDS to deepen our work in important directions: from an intergenerational perspective by highlighting Ben’s experience as an artist living with HIV born in the 1980s, and as an extension of our network from our New York office to Ben’s Los Angeles art worlds. Ben’s conversation with Annie Sprinkle ranges from topics including art, knitting, postporn, ecosex, HIV, love, loss, risk, activism, feminism, go-go dancing, orgasms, humor, death and more; during this moment of political tumult, it’s a provocative and political breath of fresh air.”
As Cuevas is an active activist-artist on both coasts and places in between, I was fortunate to attend one of his recent talks about his latest PILLows project.
“You are welcome to touch them and to lay on them—please interact with them as much as you would like,” Cuevas set the comfy, relaxed tone at his recent artist lecture at ONE Archives Foundation Gallery in West Hollywood. As part of the closing walkthrough of “Lost & Found: Safer Sex Activism Exhibition” on Sunday, July 1, along with fellow exhibiting artist/activists Kim Abeles (HIV/AIDS TAROT Cards) and members of Clean Needles Now (CNN), the group discussed safer-sex practices and harm reduction activism in the Los Angeles metro area.
“The piece is called PILLows with a capital P. I. L. L.” Word-play and thoughtful puns are prevalent and very much intended in Cuevas’ work. PILLows was originally created for Viral Illumination, a one-night, art event curated and produced by Elijah Mckinnon and Vasilios Papapitsios that intended to celebrate the work of artists and creative people living with HIV/AIDS as well as their allies.
“Since it was a very celebratory atmosphere, I was imagining work that I could create that wouldn’t be overly serious, although it is a very serious issue and we can’t ignore that. Luckily today we have so many advancements in treatment and prevention. There is a lot to celebrate. We are very much carrying on the legacy of the work of artists and activists who have been engaged in this conversation since the beginning of the epidemic.
Rising up to the challenge of a soft-sculptural work to be sewn rather than constructed through knitting (a first for him for Viral Illumination), Ben worked with his team of collaborators: Vasilios Papapitsios, Daniel Aston, and Danimal Oh. “They all have amazing insight and experience,” shared Cuevas.
“I think we all really had the intention of creating a space that made people feel comfortable talking about HIV and AIDS, and prevention in particular. There aren’t enough conversations happening around PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and TasP (Treatment as Prevention) and those are some of the most revolutionary tools that have come about in this epidemic.”
“Being an HIV-positive person, I feel that my existence is indebted to the work of those people who have come before me in helping bring about these pharmaceutical interventions; such as the work of ACT UP and all of the activism that happened around making early drugs available and then getting better drugs developed. I think there is still a lot of work that needs to happen, so I wanted to create a comfortable space that helps give people license to talk about all of these things. My work is influenced directly by my identity—all of the pills in this piece I have taken at some point—the blue one at the bottom is Truvada and the pink ones are Isentress, which was the first regimen I was on. The green ones are Genvoya which I am taking now. I like having that personal connection in my work. I also greatly admire and hearken to the work of David Wojnarowicz and Ron Athey. I love how confrontational their work is, especially in the context of the early years of the epidemic. This idea of confrontation was really important because the general public wasn’t confronting the issue of HIV. Since then, HIV/AIDS has become a part of the cultural conversation in a bigger way, but a lot of people still aren’t comfortable with it. There is still this fear that hangs over people’s heads around HIV and AIDS and it’s there for a reason—the epidemic caused a lot of harm—but I think today we live in a time that is much less scary and we can be a lot more comfortable talking about these things. In a way, you could say I’m confronting people with comfort. So, those are some of the ideas that went into the creation of this work. Since Viral Illuminations PILLows has gone on to be shown here [ONE Archives Foundation Gallery]. Vasilios also took it to the festival, MIX NYC, and incorporated it into a large-scale video installation.
HIV remains a serious public health issue for the Hispanic/Latino community and because of the disproportionately high rates of new infections the Latino Commission on AIDS (LCOA), the Hispanic Federation along with other service organizations put together this day of awareness to build capacity for non-profit organizations and health departments to reach these communities, promote HIV testing, and provide HIV prevention information and access to care.
For this year’s 2018 NLAAD (National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day) people are encouraged to use the hashtag #NLAAD2018 to remind us that “Ending HIV is everyone’s job.” National Latino AIDS Awareness Day takes place on October 15, the last day of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts on September 15.
Informed about the facts, Cuevas shares, “Latinx HIV/AIDS awareness month is important to me because it affects my community and targets one of the cohorts most directly affected by HIV/AIDS today: Hispanic and Latinx men who have sex with men (MSM). This group is one of the demographics with the most, new HIV diagnoses, second only to Black MSMs.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) further reports that Hispanics/Latinos account for about twenty-five percent of new diagnoses of HIV in the United States in 2015, despite representing about eighteen percent of the total U.S. population. The CDC furthers that stigma, language barriers, and limited access to health care are among the factors that contribute to the higher rates of HIV infection in Hispanic/Latino communities.
Gaining a respected and growing presence in the world of art activism, Ben was recently invited to be a visiting lecturer this past August for the 2018 Summer Fire Island Artist Residency Program, awarded to LGBT artists where he presented the trajectory of his work and its themes from his earliest knit anatomical sculptures to his most recent PILLows installation, and lots in between.
“It was great having an opportunity to delve into the politics and concepts that underlie my practice: the body, HIV, queer theory, intersectional feminist theory, pop culture, etc. Meeting with the artists in residence was wonderful too. It seemed like my work really resonated with them, as their work resonated with me when I got to do studio visits and see what they were making. It was exciting to see what such a talented group of artists were doing with their time in residence at FIAR.”
In his popular, visually and cerebrally intriguing Tweetables series, Cuevas creatively subverts our Commander-in-Chief’s seeming inability to restrain himself on social media. Through Cuevas’ exploration of identity, pop, and the Internet, which carries through these works, “The Tweetables Series: Knit Text in 140 Characters or Less,” revels in the interstices of language and syntax where Ben “merges contemporary language and aesthetics of social media with the anachronistic softness of knitting and yarn.”
He notes: “Art as activism is more important than ever. Given our current political climate, it is clear there is so much work to do still. Artists play an important role in making change, raising awareness, and engaging communities. One positive of living in such trying times: people are paying attention to political art more than ever.”
The final panel in his piece, Twitterstorm, takes a direct stab and pierces the President’s winning campaign slogan. Stitched onto a Democrat blue-hued field, it reads “…all for some idea of greatness that never was. #NotMyPresident.” The pointed reality of these words masquerading as a sweet knitted sampler is unsettling. It pulls the “home sweet home” rug right out from under our feet or rightfully slaps us in the face.
Direct impact in order to affect political and social change is vital to Cuevas who contends that his work is influenced by his identity as a gender queer, male-bodied, HIV-positive artist. “I want people to think about the intersections between the body, politics, identity, and culture. Specifically, at this point in time, if I may get on my activist soapbox, I want to get across that we still need to expand [and safeguard] government and private support for HIV/AIDS care and prevention. Testing, PrEP, and TaSP need to be freely available to all who need it. We need comprehensive sex education in public schools that teaches students about consent and goes beyond heteronormativity. Queer history and culture are worthy of preservation. People of all genders, races, sexual orientations, physical abilities, ages, and income brackets deserve respect, autonomy, and opportunity.”
Speaking about the new trajectory of his work he furthers: “It’s going in a few directions. This fall, I’m lucky to have been invited by BOXOprojects to be an artist in residence with them in Joshua Tree. I’m looking forward to seeing how that unique location inspires me to make art and engage with the desert’s creative community. Also, I’m working on a new photographic body of work called ‘Reinserted.’ For this series, I’m culling through archives to find images of sex workers and public cruising, and digitally reinserting the archival photos’ subjects into the images’ modern-day locations. This work will be included in the upcoming group exhibition ‘ON OUR BACKS: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work,’ curated by Alexis Heller at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, opening September 2019. I also plan to continue my Tweetables series of knit text in 140 characters or less, and likely do some more knit sculpture and installation exploring the body and identity.”
Thoughtful and ambitious. Not bad.
For more information about Ben and to see a wider breadth of his previous work—such as “Knit Veins,” a biologically intimate piece that underscores Cuevas’ fascination and interest in blood or “Jockstrap,” a performance piece where Ben sat nude in a men’s locker room and knit himself a jock strap from start to finish, thus exploring notions of woman’s work versus man’s work and appropriate activities within gendered spaces—log on to www.bencuevas.com. “Jock strap” was performed at the Queer Biennial exhibition, at the Hotel Gaythering, in conjunction with Art Basel Miami in 2014.
To learn more about Visual AIDS or to purchase a copy of DUETS: Ben Cuevas & Annie Sprinkle in Conversation for $10.00 go to www.visualaids.org.
Sean Black is a Senior Editor of A&U.