Jersey City Artist Miguel Cardenas Talks About HIV/AIDS & Blurring Lines Among Art, Design and Social Movements
by Alina Oswald
Jersey City is not only one of the most diverse cities in the country, but it also has a rich artist community. If you happen to take a stroll through some of the city’s art venues, it’s impossible not to notice the fascinating work of Jersey City native and resident, Miguel Cardenas.
As it happens, art has always been a part of Cardenas’ family, and so has activism. His mother was an artist. “She used to paint a lot of fashion back in the seventies, got me through college,” Cardenas says when we chat on Zoom. “She still paints once in a while.”
The activism comes from his father, who used to take him to anti-Castro rallies in Manhattan, during the seventies. His parents fled Cuba in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. “They’re very grateful to be in this country,” Cardenas says. “The idea of just freedoms is something that we’ve never taken for granted,” he adds, referring to his parents and siblings.
“But I guess there was always a spark of activism in me,” he then ponders. “I’m a lot more liberal than the rest of my family, and the only one who’s been a little bit artistically inclined.”
He came out “as a gay man” in 1981, during the summer of his high school graduation. About the same time, the New York Times published the first article about what would come to be known as HIV/AIDS. “You could just imagine what that was like—you’re eighteen, you’re out, and all of a sudden you hear about this horrible thing that’s happening, and [you tell yourself that] it’s not going to affect you….”
Cardenas received a scholarship to Columbia, but then transferred to Pratt Institute to study architecture and loved it right away. So, he “bit the bullet” and gave up his scholarship, and finished his undergraduate studies at Pratt. Then he went back to Columbia where he got his master’s in Architectural Advanced Design and Theory in 1991.
Living in Manhattan during the eighties, he’d notice that young men, in their twenties, were around one day, and then they would just disappear, as if “they’d just not be around anymore.” Then, during the first years of ACT UP, Cardenas started to listen more and become more socially conscious towards the reality of the AIDS crisis unfolding all around him.
Then he met Paul Mendoza. “In a dance club, in Manhattan,” Cardenas mentions. “We went on a date, and then another, and another, and then we decided to move in together. We’ve been together…it’ll be twenty-seven years in July,” he says with a smile.
Paul Mendoza grew up in the Castro District, in San Francisco, a couple of blocks away from Harvey Milk’s camera store, the giant rainbow flag always visible through his window. “I think he was born an activist, that one,” Cardenas comments on his husband. “He’s made me more of an activist than I’ve ever thought I would be.”
While looking for a nice place to live in Manhattan, they ended up moving to Jersey City. One evening, Mendoza broached the idea of starting a Pride festival in the city. Cardenas, on the other hand, didn’t think that that was really necessary since there’s NYC Pride right across the river. But Mendoza insisted, and they ended up co-founding Jersey City Pride, in 2001.
“The first year was a struggle, a lot of politics involved,” Cardenas recalls. “The only slot the city had available for us was in August.” (Hence, ever since, August has been JC Pride Month.) “Paul spoke at a City Council meeting. He gave a pretty good speech that we had written together, but he delivered it because it was really his idea; he’s really the founder of JC Pride, and I was kind of the supportive partner, but we kind of did it together.”
In Jersey City they also discovered the local artist community and met a lot of artists, and also activists. Shortly after that, they cofounded JCLGO—Jersey City Lesbian and Gay Outreach—a community-based grassroots neighborhood group, and, as part of JCLGO [2001–2010], Cardenas started the Vital Voices LGBTQ+ group art show, which he even curated a couple of times.
At first, the group would meet in their apartment; and when it became too small, they started hosting the art show in various places around the city. “The Vital Voices group art show became very popular,” Cardenas says. “We always had a really good spread of liquor and food, and then the art wasn’t bad either.”
About the time he started Vital Voices, many people living with HIV were still unsure of what their future was going to hold. Even then, many of the LGBTQ+ nonprofits on both sides of the Hudson were still focusing almost solely on HIV/AIDS. “You think there’s COVID fatigue now, after [two years]? Try forty years,” he says, slightly shaking his head in a you-have-no-idea kind of way. “HIV consumed the way you thought about everything, because you didn’t know for how much longer you were going to be around.”
But while it was important to talk about HIV and AIDS, those living with the virus could not allow the virus to define every aspect of their life, all the time. Hence, he created Vital Voices to offer a brief, yet welcoming escape into art and art making, and friends gathering.
Vital Voices no longer exists, but it had a good run (2002–2011). It inspired a lot of local artists, including Cardenas, to make art. It was through this show that he became obsessed with creating the artwork that he makes today.
Coming face to face with Miguel Cardenas’ artwork is a fascinating experience, as intriguing as it is enlightening. Influenced by the deconstructivism architectural movement he studied in grad school, his digital and hand-cut collages (or “assemblages” as he calls them) “attempt to blur the line between art and design by creating a narrative of associations. Architectonic spatial concepts are applied by overlaying juxtaposing appropriated iconic images and text taken from art history, social history as well as pop culture.” Thus, his work “attempts to inhabit the ambiguous, interstitial space or gray zone that exists in between binary oppositions—where, he says, things are not either/or but both/and.
This juxtaposition of opposite ideas and beliefs defines the chemistry of a lot of his artwork, both past and present.
His latest show, “Tangents,” was a solo show and Jersey City’s first in-person show after COVID to open last summer at the Village West Gallery, as part of Art House Productions Gallery. The artwork included in the show reflected the times in which we live—2021 marked twenty years of Jersey City Pride, forty years of the HIV and AIDS pandemic, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, women’s rights movement, and much more.
Among the art pieces included in the show, Invisible Man is based on the African male identity and its exploitation throughout the decades and into the present. Nevertheless She Persisted is inspired by a documentary on Farrah Fawcett that revealed the actress as the first woman to bring up equal pay in Hollywood, in the seventies. Hence, Cardenas’ Nevertheless She Persisted is inspired by women and their “expected sexuality,” he says. “You kind of see Farrah Fawcett and in between, throughout her portrait, you see pictures of accomplished women throughout history, from Queen Victoria to Hillary Clinton.”
Silence and And the Band Played On speak to the ongoing HIV and AIDS crisis, and related, iconic activism, while incorporating visual elements inspired by the work of the Gran Fury and Silence = Death collectives, also by Keith Haring’s work, and other memorable images capturing the history of the pandemic.
Cardenas’ solo show, “Tangents,” brought in hundreds of people, including his family. Knowing that he and the rest of his family oftentimes find themselves at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, Cardenas warned his family that they might not agree with some of his work. “But they were very proud of me, and that [so many] people came to see my work. So, I do think that there’s room for healing.
“I also think that there’s always room for activism,” Cardenas says, “because if there wasn’t, then we wouldn’t be talking about me calling Paul my husband. I didn’t think that that would happen in my lifetime, honestly.” He ponders on all the progress that has happened within his lifetime. “I was six years old when Stonewall happened, and I remember when Harvey Milk was shot, and then very quickly we’ve started seeing acceptance…I [teach] in an inner-city high school right now and I think that the next generation, they’re very accepting of other diversities, ethnicities, and races, and there is a much more awareness than there was when I was growing up in the seventies; so I think that there is hope, I really do.”
Alina Oswald, Arts Editor of A&U, is a writer, photographer, and educator based in the New York City area. She’s also the new Arts Editor of Out IN Jersey Magazine. Contact her online at alinaoswald.com.