featured gallery for January 2013

Before AIDS and Beyond

Fake rotting flesh encased in a box of metal and plexiglas.
An assemblage of catholic symbols, pretty jewels and miniature grapes.

A quick read of the artwork described above could suggest they are still-life queries into the limits and nature of our human bodies: How long can we last? What happens when we are gone? What are we looking at when we look at each other?

The works were made by Paul Thek (1933-1988) and Joe Brainard (1941 – 1994) respectively, and are both dated 1964. They are the earliest works represented in the Visual AIDS Online Registry, the largest image archive of work created by artists living with HIV/AIDS and those who died living with HIV/AIDS.

Cells like a solar system, exploding in purples and reds.
An elderly naked man melting.

Text that reads, “I survived AIDS” below a smiling boy in a bow tie.
These works are the newest in the registry, created in 2013 by artists Bj Broekhuizen (b.1979), Laurence Young (b. 1952), and John Hanning (b. 1961) respectively. If tempted to relate them to each other one could suggest they are not far from the work of Thek and Brainard, they are examples of men exploring bodies and the changes that come with the introduction of HIV and age itself.

In between the earliest and the latest works within the registry is a span of nearly half a century. And bodies. And AIDS.  And a world of response to a virus that changed and continues to impact how live, love, and die. For the January 2013 Web Gallery we use the above works to bookend the tremendous period in which HIV began, selecting single works from the registry from pivotal years to highlight a few key moments in the ongoing story of the virus.

As Visual AIDS enters into our 25th year, and as we prepare to launch an online timeline of our history for this site, this web gallery also finds us thinking about our own story, and where it fits within the AIDS movement. For example, we are interested in how individual works and artists from the registry relate to larger stories about AIDS.

Increasingly our thinking about AIDS has moved beyond the 30-year span our culture has adopted to encapsulate the epidemic. For this web gallery we let the work dictate our starting date: 1964. We want to suggest that the story of HIV does not begin merely with public consciousness but with the experience of those who lived and live with HIV, and the work they have created to express themselves.

Yet we cannot ignore historical moments that have become AIDS culture milestones such as the 1981 article in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newsletter, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly, that made refers to five cases of an unusual pneumonia.  From that year we select Untitled, Self Portrait Standing in the Shower by Mark Morrisroe (1959-1989). On display is his desirable body, a shot he took “to answer a sex add (sic)” the summer before. Like other artist members such as Al Winn, Morrisroe’s body and his representation of it, is another way to trace the story of the virus. HIV is an embodied experience.

Jumping ahead to 1988 we look at The Seven Last Plagues, from Roger Brown (1941-1997).  As he did in other works, Brown borrows from the history of mining to explore the history of human suffering. In 1988, Visual AIDS was founded, the first project being the Day Without Art, an initiative that saw 800 art institutions respond to the epidemic on December 1st of that year by covering up art work or closing their doors to illustrate the loss the art world was experiencing due to the epidemic.

Six years later, in 1994, the Visual AIDS Archive Project, now the Visual AIDS Online Registry, was created due to the work of the grassroots, Archive Project. They felt artists living with HIV experienced two deaths, first the death of their career, and second, their physical death. The archive was an attempt to prevent the first death, and provide direct services to artists. One of the first initiatives of the archive was an exhibition showcasing the work of the first 10 artists in the archive entitled The First 10. Included in the show was Self-Portrait: Grief from artist Lucretia Crichlow (19950 – 1997).The intimate work captures both the personal anguish, and—as represented by the hard lines—the systemic failings that exasperate living with HIV.

1996 marks a watershed moment in the history of HIV, the introduction of life saving medication. Up to this point, HIV was a death sentence. With antiretroviral therapy (ART), HIV could be for some a manageable chronic illness.  While for others, due to lack of access, was a promised unfulfilled, another example of the inequality within the larger AIDS movement. Meds also brought up new issues, like what were people going to do with their lives now that they were no longer over. Devil with One Ear: Anthony, created in 1996 by Luna Luis Ortiz (B. 1972) in many ways captures the complex moment in AIDS history.

In 2004, President George Bush launched The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The same year, Frederick Weston (b. 1946) began his collage Nobely Nude (11) that he completed in 2006. The work speaks to the ways bodies and cultures can be colonized. Viewed in relation to PEPFAR, the work helps to consider some of the issues with foreign aid, and the ways in which the American response to HIV has been life saving and problematic. Weston’s collage, like much of the work in the archive, stands alone as important works of art. And when viewed through the lens of HIV/AIDS (due to being including in the Visual AIDS online registry) can also be read in historical and political terms.   

When trying to place the epidemic within a timeline, even as consciously incomplete as this slideshow and essay are, there is lament for the fact that some moment, thing, body will be forgotten, overwhelmed by the endlessness of AIDS. The Visual AIDS online registry, the web galleries, and maybe all that we do at Visual AIDS, is our small intervention against the inevitability of forgetting, our assertion that there are people vibrantly and currently responding to AIDS, and our practice of everyday freedom in which we promote and employ the use of art to remind the world that AIDS is not over. 

Long after HIV no longer causes harm, our response to the epidemic will remain. It is the activism, resistance, and art that will be the legacy.

- Visual AIDS Staff 2013