THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
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By Thomas Feldhacker
America has approached an interesting point in time where it can look back on its recent history with enough distance to be reflective on the effects of the pain and hope it experienced. It can also see the potential for change in the future and the demons that continue to haunt it. The "ARTAIDSAMERICA Chicago" exhibition was an attempt to be that reflective agent about the HIV epidemic in America as well as an agent for continued progress socially, politically, and individually. However, it sorely missed the mark in any comprehensive way and has opened up the conversation to older, deeper cultural wounds surrounding identity politics. Instead, the poorly thought out original curatorial message was muddled with a public service message from private donors that used the art and the pain of the past it represents as a tool to sway the audience into a cautionary stance on the disease. In essence, this show was reworked from its original purpose of surveying the influence that the disease had on the visual arts to promoting safe sex practices within the gay community. The result was an overwhelming amount of great art out of context that under represented the comprehensive damage inflicted by this disease.
Kia Labeija Eleven, from the second installment of the ongoing series ‘24’. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Curatorially, this show has only one thread that binds each piece of art together: the influence of HIV. The range of mediums, messages, contexts, and artists were very broad, and there was no defining aesthetic. It would be perfectly apt to call this show a thematic survey exhibit. To help navigate these sub-genres the curators devised a symbol system that categorized each piece into four general ways the art related to the epidemic: Body, Spirit, Activism, and Camouflage. This system was helpful to contextualize each piece since there was very little thematic layout to the space. The objects were placed where they were best displayed in a very unconventional space. One could spend hours just reading the labels and contextualizing each piece individually. The emotionally exhausting journey would take you through the countless experiences of distress, hope, loss, love, anger, and so on of these artists. Any connoisseur of Post-Modern American art would fall in love.
The exhibition was a collaboration between two curators, Jonathan David Katz of the University of Buffalo and Rock Hushka of the Tacoma Art Museum. The project included a travelling exhibition and a book of the same name and content. The exhibition was not accepted by any elite institutions, only second tier museums and independent galleries. Chicago was not on the tour because no institution, not even lower tier institutions, would accept to host it until the Alphawood Foundation decided to buy a space and fund the exhibition. The foundation has a special interest in gay rights activism and it should be no surprise that it decided to fund this landmark exhibition.
For those who have been following the exhibit know that it was not well received upon first opening. Although it was seen as culturally imperative to create an important documentary of the disease and the art that resulted, it did not do so in a fully representative way that caused the exhibit to become a platform for conversations about other identity politics to take place, specifically around race and gender, America’s timeless social problems. Tacoma, the opening of the tour, was protested when it became clear that of the 107 artist represented only four were black and only one of those four was a woman. This is absolutely outrageous considering that the black community is disproportionately infected and there were many artists that could have been chosen to represent them.
There are two explanations for why this could have been the case. The first one is that the intensity of the cultural war after AIDS became known as the gay disease focused around those artists that had money and influence to fight the institutions; i.e. wealthy white men. They had the resources and/or the connections to produce art that was shown in prominent institutions. The second explanation is that the curators, in an attempt to court elite institutions, chose only those artists with prestige and gallery representation to give the show perceived legitimacy. The big names that were included in the show to bring credibility were those such as Judy Chicago, Félix González-Torres, Keith Haring, Annie Leibovitz, and Robert Mapplethorpe. Neither explanation is very satisfying. It is inexcusable to ignore these other dynamics of the epidemic when all you had to do was look and you would find all the examples you would need. As the exhibit travelled from Tacoma to West Hollywood, Atlanta, and finally at the Bronx Museum in NYC, the exhibit had earned the hashtag #stoperasingblackpeople. What was intended as an attempt to be a reflective agent about HIV in America and its effects socially and politically turned out to under-represent most non-gay experiences, especially those experiences of children and people of color. Only in the Chicago exhibition did the curation change to include more women, artists of color and local Chicago artists.
When the Alphawood Foundation took on the project of exhibiting this show, it did so by trying to correct some of these under-representations as well as making the current state of the epidemic very clear. The very first experience the audience has when they walk into the gallery space is a video that goes into the history of the activism in Chicago. To complicate an already messy curation, the foundation added this other layer to the exhibit that focused on what was happening now with the epidemic. This focused primarily on a new generation that is dealing with an entirely different situation than the older generation that lived through the crisis and view the exhibit with their own sadness and nostalgia. The overall message being that the experience was horrific and yet we still have not dealt with the problem. Advances in treatment have given HIV-positive people the same life expectancy as HIV-negative people but because of our collective amnesia to the pain of the past, transmission rates are about as high as they were during the peak of the crisis in the 80s.
The result of the exhibition was an overwhelming amount of great art pulled out of context that still did no justice to representing a holistic picture of the epidemic. Even as you walk through the exhibit, you notice that the most famous artists and artworks were on the first floor with prominent spots while the diverse additions added by the Alphawood Foundation were put on the second floor. They still felt like an afterthought. The change was a good start but it left much to be desired.
Thomas Feldhacker is the Social Media Editor of the
New Art Examiner.