“Art AIDS America” in Review

“The exhibition is one of magnitudinal depth with transmitting hope of a reconception of who we are now and what we were then. Each piece could be considered a prayer, one of hope, memory, forgiveness and acceptance.”

By: Sarah Olivo

The Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) has curated the expansive and emotional exhibition, Art AIDS America. The mission of this exhibition is not to just show the dark, the death, and the end but what AIDS means to the living and how the human experience has and is coping with a disease that society has tried to erase. This epidemic is illustrated through artistic expression, emphasizing its ongoing existence and the current struggles. Famous names like Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar’s work meet the visitor at the beginning of three large galleries devoted to this exhibition. At once the exhibit seems overwhelming, eyes darting low and high, apparent with emotional connotation in their intent while some depictions require a closer look to truly grasp the depth of their meaning.

Tacoma Art Museum. Tacoma, WA. October 25, 2015. Photo credit: Sarah Olivo.

Tacoma Art Museum. Tacoma, WA. October 25, 2015. Photo credit: Sarah Olivo.

Upon closer look, the intersections of identity politics, what is considered “other”, and what it means to live with AIDS becomes the theme in many artists work. Glenn Ligon’s piece, “Untitled (i Am An Invisible Man)” (1993), shows intersectionalities of an identity with AIDS, race and sexuality as the face of AIDS are typically alive and well with those living within the parameters of this epidemic but those facets of identity are often ignored or overshadowed by the public’s misunderstanding and failure to look beyond AIDS.  This piece speaks to not only coping with an unforgiving disease but also the idea of “otherness” that come with being black and gay in America. The late 1980s began with what the exhibit calls, “Poetic Postmodernism;” Federal laws were giving no government support to museums that were considered to be showing obscene content. This included work from gay artists depicting their struggle with AIDS. Therefore many of these pieces in the exhibition don the name, “Untitled,” for they are the manifestation of the artist perspective, meaning they could not fall under the label of “obscene content” because these works with this title are created from authentic personal experience. Through this collective title, museums maneuvered around this regimented censorship during a time of crisis in American history.

In pieces from Tino Rodriguez’ beautiful oil paintings of Dia De Los Muertos faces in loving embrace, titled “External Lovers” (2010), Rodriguez hoped to translate what it means to live with AIDS in terms of heritage. He uses traditional imagery to illustrate opposites when living in American culture, like good versus evil, horror versus humanity, and loss with presence. His stunning skulls illuminated in vibrant flowers express the triumph of love, memory, and death in the age of AIDS. Much of the exhibit promotes the authentic experience of those living with this disease and how the rest of the world might think their lives have ended, but AIDS does not mean the end and this exhibit illustrates that continuance and the possibility of growth through understanding.

This era of artistic expression the exhibition represents really began as grassroots activism and was informed by earlier feminist artists who were also working in identity politics. A piece from Judy Chicago, “Homosexual Holocaust, Study for Pink Triangle Torture,” (1989) is one example of the span of AIDS. While stereotypically being the gay mans disease, it’s effects reach the broad human experience and have infected many existences. One large brightly rainbow-colored canvas from Brett Reichman titled, “And the Spell was Broken Somewhere Over the Rainbow“(1992) is an image of swinging clocks to symbolize the relentlessness of time, it’s fleeting nature and the title as an homage to gay icon Judy Garland during the political persecution of AIDS patients. This piece was made in San Francisco where the lesbian community came together to care for their “othered” comrades. The stigma of women and children living with AIDS is alive and well. Artist Kia Labeija born HIV+ shared her intimate self portraits with TAM: living in her apartment, mourning her mother’s death, coping everyday with the disease her life has only ever known. The exhibition tries to model how prevalent this disease really is today. TAM has chosen to practice progressive museology methods by shining light on the erasure of an epidemic, of people that have died, and those that are living with AIDS. The exhibit reports that 1.2 million are living with AIDS in the U.S. and one in eight is unaware of their infection.

While the exhibition shows resilience and hope, there were moments where I had to stop to catch my breath. Specifically, Robert Sherer’s, “Sweet Williams” (2013) is made with the literal use of blood and semen, the actual physical representation of the visible transmitter of the disease. The painted flowers representing all the Williams, Wills, Billys, Bills he has known, a flower for each, sheared and laid to rest in a woven basket. I have truly never felt impacted by works like I had with these; it was physical and visceral at the same time. In artist Larry Stanton’s piece, “United.” hospital drawing with crayons on paper (1984) states, “Life is not bad. Death is not bad.”

The exhibition is one of magnitudinal depth with transmitting hope of a reconception of who we are now and what we were then. Each piece could be considered a prayer, one of hope, memory, forgiveness and acceptance. With some works listing the date of birth followed by the date of death, the fragility yet strength of human experience has never been more apparent. The exhibitions message stretches across politics, sex, religion, loss, and beauty to share the ongoing impact and how artists have become the architects of change when sharing an experience that has been made to shed so much shame, hatred, and exclusion on their existence. The exhibit opened October 3, 2015 and will close January 10, 2016.  I urge you to attend, walk with a heavy and open heart through an experience many have deemed disgraceful, and leave with an understanding of the encompassing affect AIDS has had on America and humanity.

Sarah Olivo is a recent graduate from the Master of Museology program at the University of Washington. She currently works at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle and plans to continue to pursue opportunities of authentic storytelling, immersive experiences, and educated social change as practice.

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