See It Now: How AIDS Changed Art Forever

By David Schonauer   Tuesday August 11, 2015

Not many exhibitions make you look at history in a new way.

But that is exactly what “Art AIDS America” does. The exhibition, previewing this summer at the ONE Archives Gallery & Museum in West Hollywood before opening in a fuller version at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington on October 3, is the first comprehensive survey considering some 30 years of art produced in response to the AIDS epidemic in the United States. The work — including photography from Robert Mapplethorpe, Bill Jacobson, Andres Serrano, David Wojnarowicz and Kia Labeija — covers the periods both before and after the introduction of medicine that extended the lives of those living with HIV. And in doing so, it points to a profound change that took place.

In the words of co-creator Rock Hushka, the exhibition shows “how the artists’ response to the epidemic utterly changed artistic practice in the United States.”

The exhibition has been met with wide praise in the media. At the Huffington Post, for instance, LA art critic Shana Nys Dambrot calls it “historically salient, stylistically diverse, and politically inspirational.”

Before the AIDS crisis, notes Wired, “popular art wasn’t all that biographical — consider Andy Warhol’s screen printed homages to consumerism, or Jackson Pollock’s abstracted paintings. AIDS changed that. It spurred artists to use the medium to tell the world about their crisis.”

“Here was art living out its ideal and making change and doing it in an unapologetic way,” says Hushka, the Tacoma Art Museum’s chief curator.

                      Bill Jacobson, Interim Portrait #373, 1992

         Andres Serrano, Blood and Semen III, 1990

       David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Buffalo), 1988

          Shimon Attie, Untitled Memory (projection of Axel H.), 1988

         Albert J. Winn, Akedah, 1995

Co-curator Jonathan David Katz tells POZ  that the show's oldest piece, Izhar Patkin’s “Unveiling of Modern Chastity,” from 1981, “is, as far as I know, the first work of art about AIDS.” The artwork, a depiction of wounds and lesions on a putrid green surface, is an obvious reference to Kaposi’s sarcoma, notes the website.

While art from the 1980s and 1990s aimed to insert AIDS into the art world’s conversation—and that of the culture at large—work made after the HIV medicines were introduced kept the virus in the public consciousness, says Hushka, pointing, for instance, to the work of Labeija, a 25-year-old photographer who contracted HIV from her mother at birth.

“Her glamorous self-portraits are a more celebratory, empowered interpretation of what it’s like to have the virus today, even though her condition is an integral part of the work,” notes Wired.

“Memorable masterpieces, fresh perspectives, tragedy, hope, progress, and milestones both unsettling and inspirational are the order of the day in this exhibition that is ostensibly about how the AIDS crisis changed society -- but is really about how art can change the world,” writes Dambrot.


At top: Kia Labeija, Morning Sickness, 2014


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