Remembering Without Flinching
Three Artists’ Work Commemorates Those Lost to AIDS in Their Prime
by Hank Trout
One cannot help wondering whether, in 1988, when James W. Bunn and Thomas Netter, two PR officers for the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, and Dr. Jonathan Mann, Director of the Global Programme on AIDS (now known as UNAIDS), conceived of World AIDS Day, they envisioned that we would still be commemorating WAD on 1 December these thirty years later.
Here’s hoping they did.
As the World AIDS Day website says, the day reminds us “to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness.”
One of the most significant ways in which our community has done precisely those things can be found in the art produced during and in direct response to the pandemic that decimated a generation. I have written before that we preserve our history only when we write it ourselves as we are living it. The same applies to the historical record our artists have created, responding to and surviving the Plague Years, and remembering those who didn’t survive.
Opening on World AIDS Day 2018 and running through December 29, California’s Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA) will present “REMEMBER: An AIDS Memorial Retrospective,” an exhibit commemorating those lost to AIDS while they were in their prime. According to a prepared statement from the OCCCA, “The exhibit offers a snapshot of the 1980’s underground, rife with counter culture indignation, sexual exploration and a resistance to the socio-political systems which marginalized alternative, queer lifestyles.”
Here, then, in their own gently edited words, the three artists showing in “REMEMBER”—Barbara Romain, Alexandria Allan, and Kurt Weston—share their memories of those lost, yet remembered, and the artwork they produced in response.
The nature of perception is a theme in my work. My own perception is distorted due to “Swiss cheese” holes in my vision caused by a retinal degenerative disease which has rendered me legally blind. What I am able to see changes from moment to moment depending on changing light conditions and my own alertness and sense of well-being.
My paintings explore this state of flux—accidental encounters of forms and colors within a structure of layered symbols and texts. Texts are quoted from a variety of sources such as songs, news headlines, junk mail, fortune cookies, and works of literature. There are also original texts such as alphabet poems, haikus, reflections of personal experience and streams of consciousness. Themes are explored on many levels, from an urban, female viewpoint.
Inspiration for the paintings often comes from audio sources, particularly musical compositions. Elements of landscape and nature combine with urban graffiti, pop icons, pictographs, hieroglyphics and other ancient language texts in these often large color field acrylic paintings. The thrill of color upon color which I can see in varying degrees, drives layer upon layer. The viewer is invited to traverse the canvas and create his/her own poetry.
Kurt Weston and I have shown together in several venues which featured artists who are blind or visually impaired. We had long discussed doing a show together. I had some reservations as my work is really not at all about AIDS, but Kurt convinced me that some of my work does indeed relate to the theme. At first we considered using paintings which I had done in the eighties that reflected the underground lifestyle. We decided this colorful and lively work was not exactly right in the context of this show. I decided to use my text work, which is more current and from which I could find more relevant pieces. Although this work does not explicitly refer to the AIDS crisis, the themes of remembrance, death, resurrection, spirituality, hope and loss work for the show.
For instance, the painting ST. LOUIS CEMETERY contains the text of the poem by that name written by my late husband C. Natale Peditto—inspired by his visit to the famous New Orleans site. That text is overlaid with the lyrics to “Walk on Gilded Splinters,” a voodoo song by Dr. John. HOPE AND LOSS is a giant crucifix of canvasses covered with losing lottery tickets, overlaid with the words “Hope” and “Loss.” The painting, REQUIEM contains lyrics to the song by Laura Nyro, “When I die, when I’m dead and gone, there’ll be one child born in this world to carry on.”
My work, even when confronting sad or serious themes, I hope reflects a sense of life and joy in the face of sorrow.
My work as a painter has always been an exploration of the human psyche. As I slap paint onto my canvas, I dredge inspiration from the depths of the unconscious and from observation of humanity at large which at times amuses me and, more often, dismays me.
Art and magic, being closely allied, give us, as artists, power to act as a mouthpiece for subjects often considered taboo, subjects such as AIDS and sexual abuse and sexual identity issues. I move away from distorted images of sexual encounter as transitory, lurid or banal, into imaging a deeper realm of an ever-enduring erotic human connection. I attempt to present the current perilous views of sexuality as a challenge for mankind, that will enable us to find a refuge from the angst and peril faced by those touched by AIDS, sexual abuse or sexual identity.
I am hopeful that through my imagery, we will awaken to outlive the darkest, longest night of the soul in which we as humanity find ourselves. I use images that imbue sexuality in all its variety to act as an affirmation of life and as a vehicle of transformation toward developing a deeper understanding and compassion for those enduring the challenges of AIDS.
I was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 1991 when I was admitted to the hospital with Pneumocystis pneumonia and a T-cell count of three. The doctors said that my level of immune destruction indicated that I had probably been living with HIV for at least ten years. After my third bout with PCP, my doctor put me on disability from my job as a fashion photographer. In 1993 I began to lose my sight due to Cytomegalovirus retinitis and I also experienced one of the most highly visible manifestations of the AIDS virus—Kaposi sarcoma—which produced purplish red lesions all over my face and body. I was easily identified as having the disease and experienced the stigmatization many people living with the virus endured during this time.
The illness and resulting disability have inspired much of my work. The arts provide me the opportunity to act as a political and social practitioner, representing aspects of my disabilities. Being disabled in society lends me a perspective on the specific human experiences of marginalization, exclusion and forms of oppression.
My most iconic work is my Blind Vision series of self-portraits. These photographs represent the physical, psychological and emotional weight of sight loss. The images illustrate an inner journey involving my fears about becoming totally blind. This is a journey towards infinite darkness. As a person living with AIDS, I face the prospect of a greatly reduced life span and deal with decay daily. I focus on the moments which have profoundly altered the course of my life, developing a relationship between personal experience and artistic expression.
One of my most prized experiences was collaborating with performance artist John Bussa, who would regularly perform at The Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago. John was a brilliant new talent in the performance art scene and was my first friend to be diagnosed HIV-positive in the mid-1980s. This was during the early part of the AIDS pandemic when there was still no treatment, no hope. John and I had many friends who were becoming sick and fatigued with HIV. We both felt a sense of urgency to communicate through our art the terrible scourge of the AIDS plague. John’s provocative performances were a bit too hard hitting for the average gay. His apocalyptic songs and visions, in performances like “Songs from the City of Dead Umbrellas” and “Land of the Vampire Birds” were truly prophetic, even if the message was hard to accept. Sadly, John succumbed to AIDS-related lymphoma in 2009 but his life, his music and performance art legacy continue to be an inspiration for my work.
The eighties were also the time of the Reagan presidency, an era which ignored the dying and did nothing in the way of treatment or prevention. It was a time rife with counterculture indignation. So many young gay men had flocked to urban centers such as Chicago to develop new communities and extended families to replace those from which they had been ostracized. Sadly, so many became infected with the virus which would take away their potential, their future promise, and ultimately their lives.
With “REMEMBER: An AIDS Memorial Retrospective,” these three very different artists hope to celebrate those young men and to mourn their passing. It is exactly the kind of commemoration the AIDS Generation deserves and needs.
For more information on World AIDS Day commemorations, check out www.worldaidsday.org. Information on the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art and the REMEMBER exhibit can be found at www.occca.org.
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.