Tour A Landmark Art Show On AIDS & America In A Converted Bank Building

By Carrie McGath in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 9, 2016 3:01PM

Art AIDS America has finally made its way to Chicago after a tour of several cities throughout the United States over the last two years. It was worth the wait.

The deeply affecting survey challenges expectations in terms of content and exhibition, spans the spectrum of media, doesn't shy away from controversy and laudably expands its scope beyond just the activist art that has dominated other surveys of the epidemic. In sum, it's one of the most important major exhibitions in some time.

For its arrival, we spoke with co-curators Jonathan David Katz, Director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University of Buffalo, and Rock Hushka, Chief Curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art at Tacoma Art Museum, to tease out their unique approach.

“For me, the complexity of the show is all about art that references AIDS that doesn’t necessarily look like art about AIDS,” Katz said. “One of the things we were looking for were works that dealt with AIDS indirectly, because there have been previous AIDS exhibitions that tended to foreground activist graphics or red ribbons, emaciated bodies, sort of the obvious signifiers of AIDS, but that caricatured the bulk of artistic production of this moment which was instead in a different key and that is what, in part, this exhibition explores.”

To that end, the show opens with the beautiful whisper that is Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ 1995 work Water Curtain. Guests walk through this curtain to enter the exhibit, and the poignancy of the work widens with the mood and connotation it exudes. Water Curtain is calming, beautiful and subtly sparky with its pinkish plastic beads, while evoking the curtain of a hospital room, dividing patients. Like all of Torres’ work, it is often created from mass-produced commodities, but it poetically tells a massive story in a minimal way.

The relative recency of that work is important to note, too, as the exhibition works to cultivate a sense of time. As Hushka explained, “We also wanted to include works of art that were recently made because we wanted to remind people that the AIDS epidemic is not over. Secondly, the work done by the earlier generations of artists is now being taught in art schools, and people are not always aware of where their practice comes from.”

After this strong start with the Torres, the exhibit continues to be strong. It is housed in a space designed just for Art AIDS America, Chicago, thanks to funds from the Alphawood Foundation.

“[The show] is mainstream in every sense of the word: it is mainstream art, mainstream artists. Yet we discovered in the process of curating that the conjunction of art and AIDS is still very much a third rail in the U.S. museum world,” Katz said. “This show was not going to come to an institution in Chicago, but I was talking about this to people involved with the Alphawood Foundation and, never before in my life has anybody ever said to me, ‘Well, we’ll build a museum and show your exhibition.’”

With that, the space was constructed inside an old bank building on the corner of Halsted Street and Fullerton Avenue. A new, standalone museum built for a specific exhibit is far from a common occurrence—which arguably lends more credence to the necessity of showcasing this work in one space, as well as the need for continued dialogue about the AIDS epidemic.

The careful, moving curation invites that dialogue, as the subdued pink of Torres' curtain gives way to Roger Brown’s under-exhibited Peach Light, from 1983. Katz told us, “It is from extremely early in the plague; and it is called Peach Light because a Gold Coast leather bar supplanted its regular lighting with peach lighting once men started to get sick, because it was more flattering.”

Another heavy-hitter is Keith Haring’s large-scale sculptural work, housed in a remaining bank vault, which adds even more saintliness to the iconic work. “It was the last work Haring executed," Hushka said. "He takes traditional Catholic iconography, a triptych, a Virgin Mary, and then you see the people crying out for succor, and the tears of grief. It is an incredibly poignant work.” Titled Altarpiece: The Life of Christ, it is cast from bronze with white gold leaf patina, and fits perfectly into the vault, further exuding the work's aura.

One more highlight is Unveiling of a Modern Chastity by Izhar Patkin, a textured work of rubber, latex and ink on canvas. According to Katz, it carries unique significance within the narrative and canon. “To our knowledge, it is the first work of art about AIDS," he said. "What is notable is that it dates from 1981, before there was any public account of AIDS, before there was any newspaper story. But this man had been in his dermatologist’s office, a gay practice in New York, and he had seen four good-looking men with kaposi sarcoma, and he realized something was up. He calls it, Unveiling of a Modern Chastity. He just presciently got it right then and there.”

The curators also don't avoid potential controversy, as evidenced work like by Mark I. Chester’s Robert Chesley - KS portraits with hardback and superman spandex, #1-#6, which explicitly shows its subject's sarcoma-scarred body along with his virile masculinity.

“This is the first exhibition that has shown this work without censoring it. But it is a remarkable work and one that leaves me kind of gobsmacked in terms of the courage and valor of a figure who would be only several months away from his death," said Katz. ”Agreeing to show himself so vulnerably, covered with kaposi sarcoma, but as a sexual being. And Chester takes a photograph of him in a Superman suit.”

“This is the moment the bathhouses are being closed and there is a shame with gay sexuality; and some gay men themselves are apologizing for their sexuality," Katz said. "This was actually printed in the Bay Times, the gay newspaper of San Francisco. When this image appeared in 1989, there was a collective sigh of relief because we had been beating ourselves up so much.”

That unflinchingness is one of many aspects AIDS Art America Chicago so profound. Beyond a potent survey of aesthetics and process, the commendably non-risk-averse approach leaves the viewer with the somber realization of so much lost potential. It continues—and asks us to continue—an open and compassionate dialogue about the tragedy today.

Art AIDS America Chicago is on view through April 2, 2017 at the Alphawood Gallery, 2401 N. Halsted St. A schedule of accompanying events is available here.