Art AIDS America touches the art world’s third rail
by Larry Buhl
The curators of Art AIDS America, which opened with a sneak preview in West Hollywood in June, say the show is about what the gatekeepers of the art world still consider the disease as third rail of American art. That is, HIV/AIDS. More specifically, what spooks the top of the art world hierarchy is portraying HIV/AIDS as a disease that’s changed but still here, and has pervaded a wide swath of American culture.
The West Hollywood exhibit, split between the West Hollywood Library and the ONE Gallery, contains about a third of the art included in the full show, which opens October 3 at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington. The partnership with West Hollywood is significant because that city was founded thirty years ago partly in response to a lack of response to the AIDS crisis by surrounding Los Angeles and L.A. County.
From Tacoma the full exhibit moves to the Zuckerman Museum of Art in Kennesaw, Georgia, in 2016 before closing at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York. The dates of the post-Tacoma shows are still tentative.
Some big names are supporting the exhibit, including The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, The David Geffen Foundation, and Gilead Sciences, Inc. But it took almost ten years to find money and venues for the exhibit, according to co-curators Jonathan D. Katz and Rock Hushka.
One would assume with their backgrounds—Katz co-curated the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery, and Hushka reconstituted Hide/Seek at the Tacoma Art Museum where he’s the curator—would make the exhibit an easier sell. Sadly, no.
“Hundreds of museum directors said no, and one came out and said ‘love the idea but AIDS is such a downer,’” says Katz, who is director of the doctoral program in visual culture studies at State University of New York at Buffalo.
Katz adds that the response of the art world—as opposed to the artists—is still that AIDS as a topic was a “literal dead end.”
Hushka agrees. “Many exhibitions have this arc where there is an artist response to a crisis and then a happy ending,” he says.
“But with HIV/AIDS, there’s no resolution. There’s no happy ending yet. It’s happier now, and that’s part of the complexity of the endeavor. We don’t have hundreds of people dying every week, but another person seroconverts every ten minutes.”
Hushka and Katz say the choice of pieces in Art AIDS America, which spans the earliest days of the crisis to the present, underscores a point that AIDS has been an active and shaping force in American culture, not a tragic tangent. And definitely not over.
Katz has more pointed criticism of the art world gatekeepers who are skittish about what they consider difficult subject matter. “Art museums rely on boards of directors, their wealthiest donors. It’s about keeping a very narrow class, a point one percent happy. Many of them have an investment in keeping a social hierarchy. They are big- and small-c conservative.”
Culture wars and post-modernism
Katz wanted the show to be acknowledgement of the role of AIDS in the development and definition of American art, and how it influenced the work of artists who had no idea that the social and political codes they deploy had roots in AIDS.
“At the moment AIDS presented itself in the early eighties there were two powerful forces arrayed against any art about AIDS. There was an orthodox post-modernism ruling the roost in the eighties, the idea we no longer have authors because meaning is a product of the viewer. Expressiveness was considered old-fashioned and making a statement was a futile gesture, because it will always be subject to the viewers’ understanding.
“The second force was the widespread homophobia and AIDS phobia,” he adds.
Those forces combined to produce a dominant strain in American art today, which Katz says tends to be anti-authorial and unexpressive with its intent camouflaged. And that approach goes beyond so-called “AIDS art.”
Take the 2003 video by Rudy Lemke, called “The Uninvited.” Comprised of hand-made shadow puppets, the narrative is ostensibly about the Vietnam war and regret through the lens of a homeless veteran with AIDS. The viewer is supposed to stand between the projector and the projection on the wall so their shadows mingle with the puppets, in an attempt to refute the “othering” of people with HIV/AIDS, inviting an empathetic relationship with the homeless vet with AIDS by seeing themselves mingled with his shadow.
But you don’t have to see the piece that way, Katz says. “It has a specific AIDS content under the nose of dominant culture. If it was overtly about AIDS it would have had no chance of museum display.”
Undetectable, but pervasive
Hushka says that in many of the words in the exhibit the AIDS narrative is hard to parse, and therefore able to circulate freely amid the dominant art culture.
“We wanted to show the impact of the activist impulse and how it infiltrated the gallery system, the museum system either by camouflage or disguise,” Hushka says. He adds that at the same time, he wanted to find works that showed how people deal with HIV in their art that “permeates every aspect of their thinking,” using art historical methods that are parallel how HIV is suppressed by antiretrovirals, but still active.
“At the moment when the attempt to police AIDS was most pronounced, a number of artists made work that was the functional equivalent of untitled, and then with a narrative title behind it,” Katz says.
There are many such works in Art AIDS America. Like Untitled (Placebo), a 1991 piece by Cuban-born American artist Félix González-Torres, which consists of 1,200 pounds of shiny silver wrapped candies. Why that specific number? Those familiar with HIV/AIDS terms would know that 1,200 is a normal count for CD4 cells.
Fine arts photographer and filmmaker Ann P. Meredith has two photos in Art AIDS America that were originally part of an exhibit “Women with HIV 1987-1997.” She tells A&U that in 1987 the Eye Gallery in San Francisco was starting a photo exhibit on HIV/AIDS in 1987.
“I wanted to cover women with HIV because nobody was doing women then, but nobody I found wanted to have their photos taken. Nobody. They were scared. They were having children taken from them, which was against the law.”
With little more than a week until the opening and still no subjects to photograph, Meredith was going to put up empty frames with statistics. Then she got lucky. While driving from San Francisco to New York she stopped to visit family in Louisiana and saw a billboard saying that AIDS was God’s wrath against homosexuality. Fortunately, she had her camera equipment handy.
“There is still a fear of telling the truth in the art world. And a feeling of, if they don’t see it [HIV/AIDS] they don’t have to think about it.”
Joey Terrill, a thirty-five-year asymptomatic survivor of HIV, tells A&U that his art is personal. The painting he shares in the exhibit is a garish still life that puts HIV onto a dinner table, with oversized blue pills with the GILEAD name next to a Hershey’s bar and Heinz ketchup. There is also a Mexican blanket to underscore Terrell’s Chicano heritage.
“I began my still life series because of my ambivalence about the new AIDS cocktail when it came out. The implication was that HIV drugs are products, like coke, and American consumer goods.”
Katz suggests that an in-your-face show about HIV/AIDS—the kind of work that most people think of as “AIDS art,” agitprop—might have been an easier sell. “AIDS Agitprop is safe and circumscribed today,” because it’s historical, over, and locked in a time capsule. That’s the opposite of the real-life experience of the disease today, thirty-four years into the crisis, and far from the complexity and nuance that the curators sought in Art AIDS America.
Larry Buhl wrote about PrEP education in the July issue.