AIDs legacy of loss told through new exhibit Art AIDs America Chicago

By Hannah Moulthrop

A gong reverberates through the white-walled space once every 10 minutes. Piñatas that resemble HIV viruses hang from a swath of ceiling above the staircase. Oversized glass red blood cells are strewn across the floor. These works and 169 others anchor the new Art AIDS America Chicago exhibition at the pop-up Alphawood Gallery in Lincoln Park.

Here the secrecy surrounding the history of the AIDs plague lifts in art that tells a complicated story of devastation, loss and hope that triggers tears and smiles as viewers navigate the gallery and, in some cases, actively participate in adding to the art.

Use your finger to trace the name of a loved one lost to AIDs in sand from Lake Michigan saved inside an antique wooden chest. That could mean writing over the name of another’s loved one. “Dad” was etched in the sand at one point. An iron gate covered in hundreds of colorful cloth ribbons invites you to commemorate the memory of someone who died of AIDs by adding a ribbon of your own. Pick one or a few from the basket nearby.

“I challenge anybody to walk into this exhibition and not feel something,” said Jonathan Katz, exhibit co-curator and director of the visual studies doctoral program at the University of Buffalo.

Art AIDs America Chicago is the largest and most comprehensive showing of a national tour of contemporary American art influenced by AIDs. Housed in a temporary or “pop-up” gallery inside a remodeled bank building, the exhibit, on display through April 2, is sponsored by the Alphawood Foundation. The Chicago-based private foundation supports social justice issues.

“Here we are 35 years into the AIDs crisis and you know this is the first really comprehensive exhibit to address the role AIDs played in shaping American art and its affect on American society more generally. And that says something that it has taken this long,” said Anthony Hirschel, the director of Alphawood exhibitions.

The exhibit found support from the foundation after every major art museum in Chicago, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art, had rejected his proposal, said Katz.

Surprising and subtle, most of the works do not appear to be about AIDs. A brightly colored hanging tapestry in the style of a traditional Japanese woodblock print from the late 19th century shows a geisha opening condom packets with her teeth. That convergence of past and present is scarcely detectable. You would not expect condom packets against a backdrop of a Japanese calligraphy, an adorned wall and muted colors. But once you recognize the punchline, the work is especially riveting. AIDs affects the sex industry in Japan as elsewhere and condoms are needed.

And there are works you may never see in other museums, Katz said referring to a series of six photos in one frame, portraits of photographer Mark Chester’s lover, the gay playwright Robert Chesley. Chesley’s HIV infected body marked with lesions is partially uncovered while also clothed in a spandex Superman costume with a cape. His erect penis is visible in some shots,

“He valiantly uncovered his HIV infected body in an erotic pose and attempted to say no, gay male sexuality should be allowed to flourish, even if we have this virus. Infection is related to what you do, not who you are,” Katz said. “And this courageously was printed in the Bay Times in San Francisco and I cannot overstate the impact of seeing a man with Kaposi’s sarcoma and an erection in the public newspaper at this time.”

The exhibit provides a history of art reacting to AIDs, beginning with the first AIDs related art that preceded any news stories about the disease.

Jonathan Katz, co-curator, talks about his personal experience coming of age as a gay college student in the early 1980s at the University of Chicago in the midst of the AIDs epidemic.(Hannah Moulthrop/MEDILL)

In this history, captured by hundreds of films, photos, crayon drawings, cartoons, assemblages, paintings or other mediums in the exhibit, the artist is the historical recorder, as one of the artists Karen Finley described it. Finley’s works in the exhibit are the sand-filled chest called “Written in Sand” and the “Ribbon Gate.”

“What I’ve seen here and their inclusion of many underrepresented artists and groups and the way that [they’re] used in this exhibit here, is just exceptional and I’m just very moved as I’ve seen it,” she said.

Art AIDS America Chicago is on display at the Alphawood Gallery, 2401 N. Halsted St., 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 11:00a.m. to 6:00p.m. Friday. Saturday and Sunday, through April 2. Free admission; programs found here.

Photo at top: HIV viruses become art in the form of these piñatas stuffed with condoms. They hang against a backdrop of artist Dr. Eric Avery’s own red blood cell magnified from a smear. (Hannah Moulthrop/MEDILL)