Art

Surviving and Memorializing the AIDS Crisis

Glenn Ligon, Condition Report (diptych detail one of two), 2000, Iris print with serigraph, 31 x 22 in.© Glenn Ligon; Courtesy the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.
Glenn Ligon, “Condition Report (diptych detail one of two)” (2000), Iris print with serigraph, 31 x 22 in. (© Glenn Ligon; Courtesy the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, and Thomas Dane Gallery, London) (all images courtesy the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)

A public health crisis is one of these human occurrences that brings several contravening responses and feelings to the surface: fear, recrimination, massive research efforts, emotional appeals for safety and help, charitable sacrifice, anger, religious discrimination, political advocacy, and on. If you lived through the AIDS crisis which exploded in the 1980s and 90s you saw all of above. Now that the wave of desperation to control the disease and protect ourselves from it has crested (not that it does not still actively harm communities, especially poor ones), the conversation around the disease in the United States often is carried out in terms of memorialization.

John Dugdale, My Spirit Tried to Leave Me, 1994, Cyanotype, 20 x 16 in. Courtesy the artist.
John Dugdale, “My Spirit Tried to Leave Me” (1994) Cyanotype, 20 x 16 in. (Courtesy the artist)

The group exhibition at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, A Deeper Dive, curated by Jonathan David Katz and Andrew Barron, feels very much like a memorial. All the artists included have lost lovers, friends, and family. John Dugdale, who presents a series of melancholic cyanotypes lost his sight. Brian Buzcak, whose “Corpse” painting is suffused with momento mori, lost his life to AIDS. Karen Finley’s “Ribbon Gate” is essentially a public memorial consisting of a wide variety of ribbons tied to an iron gate — an apt metaphor for the diversity of people who have been lost, and who are responding to this massive deprivation.

Ann P Meredith, "Cheryl and Missy, Washington, DC" (1988), Digital archival print, 14.5 x 22 in. ©Ann P Meredith.com UNTIL THAT LAST BREATH! The Global Face of Women with HIV/AIDS 1987-1997
Ann P Meredith, “Cheryl and Missy, Washington, DC” (1988), Digital archival print, 14.5 x 22 in. (©Ann P Meredith.com UNTIL THAT LAST BREATH! The Global Face of Women with HIV/AIDS 1987–1997)

The most oddly touching work for me is Glenn Ligon’s “Condition Report” (2000). It’s a print of an actual condition report made on an earlier work of his “Untitled (I Am a Man)” (1988). The report details small changes to the original painting done in oil and enamel: There are smudges, feather cracks, hairline cracks, dark spots, places where the paint has been “rubbed”, and even a “loss at edge.” The work stands in for a body that is worn in similar ways over time, pocked and marred by disease and by the process of survival.

Yet, this is a skewed view of the exhibition, just as the exhibition itself is a skewed view of the AIDS crisis. A Deeper Dive was formulated by Jonathan David Katz, Andrew Barron and Chris Borschel as a supplementary, companion show to Art AIDS America, which traveled from the Tacoma Art Museum where it opened last year, and is now on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (until October 23). Katz, director of the Visual Studies doctoral program at the University of Buffalo, along with Rock Hushka, Chief Curator at the Tacoma Art Museum, had curated Art AIDS America and received pointed and appropriate criticism for their underrepresentation of black Americans in that exhibition. Less than 5% of the 107 artists in the exhibition are black, yet as Tedd Kerr argued black men and women are disproportionately impacted by HIV and AIDS. The Tacoma Art Collective took them to task, staging a die-in during the exhibition, urging Katz and Hushka to understand that their curatorial choices had the effect of erasing black people from the history of the crisis. While I have highlighted the works in A Deeper Dive that were particularly resonant for me, this show suffers from a similar malady. Of the nine artists included here, only one, Glenn Ligon, from what I can tell, is black, and only one other artist, Ann P Meredith even depicts people of color. In a conversation between a black artist and organizer, Christopher Jordan, and Rock Hushka, the curator responded to Jordan’s critique of the exhibition being “30 years behind” the times, by saying Jordan would have to wait for the next exhibition. Well, it’s here and we are still waiting.

Brian Buczak, Corpse, 1986, Acrylic on canvas, 33 x 165 in. Collection of Geoffrey Hendricks and the Brian Buczak Estate.
Brian Buczak, “Corpse” (1986), Acrylic on canvas, 33 x 165 in. (Collection of Geoffrey Hendricks and the Brian Buczak Estate)

A Deeper Dive continues at The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (26 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through October 2.

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