TACOMA, Wash. — The Art AIDS America exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum intends to move away from postmodern interpretations of art towards enjoining the viewer’s empathy. In the lead essay for the Art AIDS America catalogue, Jonathan David Katz writes that Roland Barthes’s foundational postmodernist text “The Death of the Author” is insufficient for describing and understanding “activist art,” such as the work that arose as a result of the AIDS epidemic. Instead, he champions something called “poetic postmodernism”: “It is poetic because it is indeterminate and open ended, but it also connotes ‘poetic justice.’ … But beneath that veneer of obedience to external dictates, the artist could create works ripe with meanings that coalesced in the viewer’s imagination.” We are meant, in Art AIDS America, primarily to feel compassion for the artist or, in some cases, her subject. Because she exists in this terrifying milieu, her work is uniquely powerful and deserving of a special type of scrutiny. However, projecting emotions onto curatorial decisions can serve to circumscribe our appreciation of this impressive retrospective. Katz et al present compassion in neatly compartmentalized doses — something that would seem to go against their mission of keeping the memory and reality of the initial AIDS crisis alive.
The show opens with a “didactic” — a useful timeline that traces the first decades of the plague. One feels that AAA’s laudable goal of empathic observation instead provides us with a relentless, singular vision of the history of AIDS in American art, explicitly telling us the meaning of works such as Adam Rolston’s affecting pile of bulk Trojan condom boxes. Yet the most powerful pieces in the show are those that demand careful observation and avoid revealing their meaning at first glance. Take Izhar Patkin’s 1981 mixed-media work depicting huge, ugly red sores. These are the terrifying signs of an unknown threat, before Kaposi sarcoma and HIV were household terms. The piece shivers with uncertainty — one of the truest memories of the epidemic’s early days.
The didacticism of the show could be forgiven if its goal of showing how AIDS has changed American art had been fully realized; but here, too, we see a chronological presentation that fails to seriously examine what happened to American art after AIDS. The quality and affecting nature of the art is not in question, and indeed there is no doubting the depth of scholarship and thought brought to these works. We are not necessarily denied information; rather, Art AIDS America does not allow the viewer to discover the works for herself. Walking through this exhibit one often feels more removed than when walking through a similarly erudite exhibit on medieval tapestries. There must be some unknown, or the viewer risks mistaking the carefully planned for teleological equanimity — things only look planned and packaged in retrospect. Again, quiet displays of unspeakable loss — such as Shimon Attie’s photographs of beds with their former owners lounging, unsuspecting, in placid spotlight — would show the evolution of an artistic milieu if they were not presented, as they are in this show, as fixed signifiers whose meaning has already been determined. The show feels primarily retrospective without being sufficiently critical: “Here is X piece,” we are told, “it means Y. Isn’t that sad?” Regardless of its curatorial merit, the viewer is led by the hand toward empathy.
The intersectional and divisive nature of society’s response to AIDS was and is messy — there can never be a singular narrative compelling and true enough to beat Barthes at his own game. AIDS decimated a population that was viciously reviled — an entire genre of human being considered by many, including the President of the United States, to be expendable at best. This cruel, double misfortune of being lethally assaulted by an entirely novel disease only to be told that you deserve it is well represented in Art AIDS America. Seattle and its environs was one the disease’s focal points, and the exhibition also seeks to highlight the region’s putative compassion toward people with HIV/AIDS — to wit, the 1988 opening in Tacoma of the United States’ first public needle exchange.
I was too young to see that the pallid, sunken face of the man who lived in the apartment across from my family’s in Capitol Hill was the face of every gay man’s nightmares. Too young to remember how his partner cared for him until he died, and became like one of Charles LeDray’s handmade teddy bears (featured in AAA) lowered, weightless, into the ground in his tiny handmade coffin. Despite my memory, I question this institutional narrative of “compassion.” Pierce County, where Tacoma is located, still has just one needle exchange. The gay vanguard made Capitol Hill into Seattle’s coolest neighborhood — only to see its residents pushed out and their accomplishments turned shiny and faceless by that new plague, lucre.
AIDS was a nightmare fueled by both the human immunodeficiency virus and the disgusting hatred humanity reserves for its most vulnerable members. The Tacoma Art Museum has created a necessary reminder, but one often feels suffocated by this ocean of plotted narrative, a simplified determinism thick with the “never again” grief of Elie Wiesel, but lacking in the “Why, and what now?” critical thought of Primo Levi. It’s odd to be presented with work like LeDray’s teddy bears and to have to pit one’s initial impressions of the work against the “poetic postmodernism” with which one is primed to enter the exhibit. The tombstone for LeDray’s piece clearly states that he did not mean for his delicate little stuffed animals and their caskets to be some sort of commentary on the crisis of his time. Who do we believe here? When such a carefully planned explanation of the work is presented to us, it can be difficult having to choose sides. LeDray — possibly disingenuously — claims his work is somehow apart from the activist art that fills the rest of the gallery space. It is not that the curator’s imposed narrative of empathy denies the viewer compassion, but that explicitly stated empathy — the kind of touchy-feely context that made Barthes dyspeptic — deprives the viewer of the chance to make up her own mind. One of empathy’s few but unavoidable problems is creating an environment to grieve without allowing for necessary critical distance. By deliberately rejecting “postmodern” thinking unimpeded by immediate personal connection, Art AIDS America has missed an opportunity to present art as greater, more malleable than the artist.
Art AIDS America continues at the Tacoma Art Museum (1701 Pacific Avenue,Tacoma, WA) through January 10, 2016.