Not a Silent Witness
Artist, Designer Doug Meyer’s Heroes: A Tribute pays homage to artists lost to AIDS
by Hank Trout
“As I get older, I find myself deeply troubled by our lack of interest and knowledge of our past and especially of this history—as a society, as a culture. The lives and contributions of the creative souls depicted here, their very existence, has been lost to younger generations. I didn’t want to stand by and let that happen.”
The quote is from Doug Meyer’s “Prologue: Not a Silent Witness” that opens Heroes: A Tribute (Tra Publishing), an exquisitely photographed, 8.5-by-12 200-page artbook commemorating and preserving Meyer’s art exhibit of the same name. The “Heroes” exhibit consists of Meyer’s portraits of forty-nine artists, fashion designers, musicians, advocates, and interior designers who succumbed to AIDS early in the epidemic. As Meyer put it, the exhibit and book are an “homage to a lost generation” of artists, gay and straight, female and male. Taken all together, although they range wildly from the classically romantic style Meyer uses in his portrait of Derek Jarman [A&U, April 1994] to the kitschy depiction of Liberace’s head embedded in a crystal, the portraits cohere into an incredibly beautiful but heart-wrenching reminder of the losses our culture suffered during the Plague Years.
In the book, Meyer writes, “I wanted each of the portraits to look as if it had been done by a different hand — that forty-eight different artists had created each one of these portraits.” When asked if that that self-imposed restriction had made for a daunting task, Doug told A&U, “Yes it kinda was a daunting task—when I started thinking about presenting the original nineteen I knew I wanted each to be as different as possible, I did not want the viewer to get bored by a repetitive medium or stylistic approach, [and] I did not want the viewer to think about the creator, I wanted them to think about and contemplate the person in the portrait.”
Doug Meyer grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, where he graduated from high school at age sixteen and set off for New York City almost immediately, age seventeen. He enrolled in the Parsons School of Design to study painting. During that year of exuberance and excess, 1977, Meyer threw himself with abandon into the city’s nightlife. Studio 54, Crisco, The Garage, Mudd Club, and Xenon became a four-night-a-week habit. In those venues, he met other artists, designers, photographers, writers, musicians, actors, and all sorts of other creative people, many of whom became subjects for his portraits. Unfortunately, the exuberance of the 1970s care to a crashing halt with the advent of the AIDS epidemic in 1981. Over the next three years, Meyer attended some seventy-nine funerals for friends lost to the disease.
“It seemed that almost everyone I knew, or had gone to school with, or had worked with, had died. It was frightening,” he writes in Heroes.
Meyer moved to Miami and continued creating art, including many large-scale site-specific installations. In 1999 he began work on a project involving dioramas and dolls, Plexiglas and flashing strobe lights to recreate bizarre nightclub sets in homage to specific themes (Andy Warhol’s Birthday, Opening Night, a Bondage Party, etc.). These sets and dioramas became the basis for a site-specific installation he called “BOD” (Broadway on Duane). “It was my was of paying homage to all the people I had known who had died.”
The “Heroes” project has gone through many manifestations since Meyer began it in earnest in 2014. “When I was asked to create a space for LUXE Magazine’s DIFFA’s space in New York [for their yearly fundraiser Dining by Design, which asks local and international designers to make over-the-top dining spaces],” he told A&U, “I thought long and hard about even doing it. These events are wonderful ways of raising money; however, for me, they become all about cocktail parties, dinners and decorative spaces So for me I wanted to remind people what they were truly there for.” He proposed doing the “Heroes” project, initially conceived as a tribute to and celebration to some of the earliest creative artists to die of AIDS, beginning with twenty-five possible subjects. He began his first piece, a tribute to Australian performance artist, club promoter, and fashion designer Leigh Bowery. True to his determination that each piece look entirely different from the others, “before I started I went to the drug store and bought false eye lashes, eye shadow kits, lipsticks and knew that in order to paint up [Leigh’s] face I had to do it with real makeup, as he would have. As I was creating it and as I finished it I loved it—it is one of my top three favorites,” Meyer said.
Some of the portraits in the project are rather straightforward mimetic portraits, such as those of Larry Stanton (portrait artist, died 1984), Halston (fashion designer, 1990), and Robert Metzger (interior designer, 1994). Among these I would also include Meyer’s very Romantic portrait of queer filmmaker/writer/artist Derek Jarman, dressed in a peasant’s shirt and holding a large basket of fruit and flowers. The portrait approaches the style of Caravaggio (Baroque with a dark palatte, sensual draping in clothing)—the painter was the subject of Jarman’s most successful film, Caravaggio, which won the Silver Bear at the 36th annual Berlin International Film Festival.
Other portraits in the project are more mythical than mimetic, coming at their subjects from a somewhat skewed perspective and yet deeply reflective of the artist being portrayed. For instance, the portrait of photographer Peter Hujar consists of sharp-angled fragments of what appears to be three or four photographs, collaged to create the “portrait.” It is jarring in its fragmentation and yet perfectly in tune with the tenor and nature of Hujar’s own photography, including portraits of Susan Sontag, Divine, and his sometime lover David Wojnarowicz [A&U, July 2018], including a series of photos that Hujar took of Wojnarowicz on his deathbed in 1987 (Wojnarowicz too died of AIDS-related causes and is one of Meyer’s portrait subjects).
And then there are the purely abstract portraits. Take for instance his portrait of interior designer Anthony Machado. Machado’s face is painted on a papier mâché egg which can sit in or lean against a large egg cup. Singer/songwriter Arthur Russell is figured as part man, part fish, playing a musical instrument of some kind. My favorite among these abstract portraits, perhaps of the entire series, is Meyer’s homage to choreographer Alvin Ailey. Eschewing any recognizable representation of the human face, Meyer used vintage wood blocks, silver tape, and paper to create sculptures that convey dancers in motion. The blocks, all oddly shaped, very sharply angular, with half-circles carved out, are mounted together in ways that suggest various ballet positions and poses and movements. Some are obviously of one dancer alone, some present a pas de deux. In its simplicity and its rendering of human dance, I find this portrait the most moving in the Heroes collection.
Other portraits in this series are rather kitschy and fun, despite what we know about the subjects’ demise. The portrait of Freddie Mercury may be the most surprising. To depict Mercury, Meyer chose images from Queen’s video for the song “I Want to Break Free,” with Freddie as a paper-doll cut-out in a shoe-polish-black bobbed wig (and mustache), a leather miniskirt and what looks like a mohair sweater. The portrait includes—of course—the vacuum cleaner Freddie pushes around in the video. Perhaps most startling is the portrait of African-American fashion designer Patrick Kelly. Referencing Kelly’s “specialty,” snug shift dresses covered with buttons, Kelly has fashioned a golliwog to represent him. That choice stems from Kelly’s large collection of Black “memorabilia,” including “Mammy” and “Aunt Jemima” dolls, among the images that Kelly used in his designs purposely to provoke. Meyer’s portrait is no less provocative.
To create the text that accompanies each portrait, Beth Dunlop has culled information from various sources, including newspaper obituaries, reviews of the subjects’ work. Meyer told A&U that the text presented “[l]ots of difficulty. Many of these artists were not know to large mainstream audiences at the time of their deaths. And take into consideration this was pre internet—it was difficult for papers to gather information to write their obituary. Not to mention the stigma at the time associated with the disease—we were always running across conflicting birth dates and years, survivors and early history. Many of them have very little footprints to this day on the Internet—so some took more detective work than others.” Despite these difficulties, Dunlop’s texts manage to provide a lot of information that rounds out Meyer’s portraits.
In no particular order, some of the other artists Meyer has honored in this book are Peter
Allen, Jacque Demy, Perry Ellis, Keith Haring, Rock Hudson, Liberace, Rudolf Nureyev, and David Wojnarowicz. And finally, the first portrait in the book, of Klaus Nomi, is a striking sculpture that perfectly captures the other-worldliness of Nomi, the multi-octave singer and performance artist.
Looking at the wonderful, witty portraits that Meyer has created, which fill this beautifully photographed book, I found myself sometimes forgetting that all of these artists, musicians, fashion designers, filmmakers, and interior designers died in the early days of the epidemic. Dunlop’s texts often snapped me back to reality. Heroes: A Tribute should prove valuable to people just discovering these artists and those who lived through the same times as they.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.