Postcards from the Edge

Nels P. Highberg

From Media to Metaphor: Art about AIDS, organized by Independent Curators Incorporated. New York, 1992.

Tongues of Flame by David Wojnarowicz. Normal, Illinois: University Galleries of Illinois State University, 1990

When my lover, Blane F. Feulner, died of AIDS in July 1992. I went through the normal reactions: shock, anger. I did not really begin to deal with the situation and begin to accept what had happened until I started to write about it.

Creating art as a means of dealing with traumatic experience is certainly not a new idea, especially for the many artists who have faces AIDS in their own lives. Poets for Life: Seventy-Six Poets Respond to AIDS is a collection of poems written on the subject, while Personal Dispatches: Writers Confront AIDS, edited by John Preston, is a collection of essays. In January 1992, a traveling exhibition organized by Independent Curators Incorporated, New York, entitled “From Media to Metaphor: Art about AIDS” began touring the country. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue bring together the variety of methods and mediums visual artists have used in their attempts to deal with AIDS in their life and work.

The catalogue begins with a dialogue by the two guest curators, Thomas Sokolowski and Robert Atkins. They place the work into a historical context by discussing early representations of persons with AIDS presented by journalists on television and in print as horrific, emaciated victims. The title of the exhibition suggests, artists moved from the images presented by the media to create their own representations of AIDS in society.

All mediums are represented in the show, from paint-on-canvas and gelatin-silver prints to video and sculpture. The exhibition includes well-known work, such as Robert Mapplethorpe’s stark, photographic self-portrait and the billboard design by Keith haring originally produced or Art Against AIDS’ “On the Road” project. The show also presents work by artists who use a medium that is more accessible to the general population. Nancy Burson’s poster “Visualize This” uses photo-microscopic images of an HIV-infected and a healthy T-cell that was wheat-pasted on buildings throughout New York City. Diane Neumaier’s photographs document the Metropolitan Health Association’s plastering of AIDS information, such as how to clean needles and how to use condoms, on New York subway placards. Use of more public modes of expression shows how concerned these artists are with not only creating work that leads to a general discussion of HIV/AIDS but also educates viewers about the syndrome.

Some work in the exhibition is inherently personal, such as the photographs of Kathy Vargas. Her series “Valentine’s Day/Day of the Dead,” “began as a remembrance of two friends who recently died of AIDS. One loved the Day of the Dead; the other met his mate on Valentine’s Day.” The hand-colored photographs contain images of milagros, or miracles, tiny metal charms offered to saints and deities during prayer. As Vargas states, the miracles never came. Her elegiac images do what many artists attempt to do when the create work based on the loss of a specific person: to acknowledge and validate the dead one’s life by invoking images of what made up their life, be it the enjoyment of a specific holiday or their belief in the meaning of objects like Milagros.

Other work confronts political issues brought to the forefront by HIV/AIDS. Composition in Pink, Black, and White by Steven Evans uses both photographs from Nazi concentration camps where homosexuals were imprisoned for their sexual orientation and stills from contemporary gay pornographic films. The structural placement of the individual components of the piece alludes to the constructivist tradition in art. The images refer to discussions of how to treat those with HIV/AIDS, whether to quarantine them as has been done in Cuba, tattoo all those who are HIV-infected like concentration camp prisoners as William F. Buckley has suggested, or kill all those with HIV as has been done in some Asian countries. These images, coupled with the linear nature of the piece, suggest the rigid mode of logic perpetuated by those ignorant of HIV/AIDS: If A (sick), then B (quarantine); or if A (infected), then B (label).

While in no way exhaustive, the exhibition does an excellent job presenting the many different mediums and themes found in art about AIDS. A more comprehensive study of one of the artists in the exhibition, David Wojnarowicz, went into its second printing this year. Tongues of Flame is an exhibition and catalogue project curated and edited by Barry Blinderman for University Galleries of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. The catalogue contains essays about Wojnarowicz by Carlo McCormick, Curtis White, and John Carlin; an interview between Blinderman and Wojnarowicz; and one hundred reproductions of his work between the years 1979-1989.

Wojnarowicz’s name has been associated with the federal funding for the arts controversy since November 1989, when then National Endowment for the Arts Chair John Frohnmayer rescinded a grant to Artists Space in New York City for an exhibition, “Witnesses: Against Our Time,” for which Wojnarowic had written the catalogue text. In 1990, U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) singled out Wojnarowicz as one of the pornographic artists funded by the NEA for this catalogue and exhibition. The debated work is Wojnarowicz’s Sex Series, a collection of eight black and white photographs. The background of each photograph depicts an unadorned, outdoor scene: a crowd of trees in a backwoods bayou or an aerial view of bridges connecting Manhattan with the surrounding boroughs. Inset into each photograph is a still taken from a gay ponographic film portraying various sexual acts. As he states in the interview with Blinderman, the series grew out of a trip Wojnarowicz took to Mexico City. Wojnarowicz was standing on a cliff outside the city, above, as he states, “one of the most horrifying slums I had ever seen.” He looked down through the lens of a super-8 camera into a yard where a one-legged man tried to help a baby ride a rocking horse with no head. Wojnarowicz used this experience in his series to create a feeling of surveying suppressed information through a distancing telescope or binoculars. The work establishes a mood of seeing something forbidden and asks why these images are regarded as such. He makes people uncomfortable in the hopes that the will contemplate why they feel that way.

A common criticism of work of this sort is whether or not the controversial piece is art. Blinderman confronts this issue in the foreword to the book when he presents his definition of art:

The primordial utterances we call art reflect the undying need to track our experiences in some poetic gesture. Art is not an end—it is a means of confronting an iota of the passion, striving, and mystery we engage. Art is a postcard sent from a place an artist’s been.

While Blinderman’s discussion of art is thought-provoking and the place of work such as the Sex Series in the context of artistic discourse is understandable, some of the most interesting work is found in other parts of the book.

Obviously, art about AIDS deals with issues of life and death. While this work may not save lives, as Sokolowski says, “It can help the rest of us live.”

Nels P Highberg will earn a degree in English from the University of Houston this May.