Because of drug treatments that have tamed the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, it’s easy to forget how devastating the disease was in the 1980s and ’90s, when at its peak thousands of people were dying every month and it fueled a political firestorm.
‘Art AIDS America Chicago’
When: Dec. 1-April 2
Where: Alphawood Gallery, 2401 N. Halsted
Tickets: Admission, free (advance timed admission passes are recommended)
Complete list of associated programming: artaidsamericachicago.org/events/
Artists across the country responded to this deadly health threat, and a touring exhibition that opens Dec. 1 — World AIDS Day — at the new Alphawood Gallery, offers the first comprehensive look at these sometimes controversial works and their art-historical and socio-political impact.
“We are now able to have some measure of breathing room and distance from an epidemic that was once nipping at our heels, and with that we can begin the kind of historical examination that this exhibition seeks to engage,” said co-curator Johathan Katz.
More than 140 works by such nationally known artists as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Keith Haring, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Mapplethorpe and Tino Rodriguez will be on display in this fourth and final stop of the exhibition, which has been locally titled “Art Aids America Chicago.”
Art and AIDS became very much intertwined with the ugly culture wars of the late 1980s and ’90s, including the notorious 1989 cancellation of a traveling Robert Maplethorpe exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Indeed, these issues remain so controversial that the curators of “Art AIDS America” had a hard time finding institutions willing to host it. In the end, it was smaller, less well-known ones that took it on, starting with the Tacoma (Wash.) Art Museum, the exhibition’s organizer.
When none of the mainstream art institutions in Chicago would or could present this exhibition, the Alphawood Foundation agreed to do so. The foundation has long made the promotion and protection of the rights of the LGBT community and people living with HIV/AIDS a central part of its philanthropy.
“There was a feeling that there was no project that could be more central to this mission here,” said Anthony Hirschel, Alphawood’s director of exhibitions, “and it was simply too important for that exhibition not to be seen not just in Chicago but anywhere between the coasts. It was just felt that it was vital that this show get a hearing in the center of the country.”
The free exhibition will be presented in a newly renovated, nearly 15,000-square-foot space in a former bank building at 2401 N. Halsted, where the foundation has its offices. It will be accompanied by an extensive line-up of panel discussions and other related programming.
From the beginning, Hirschel said, curators intended that each presenting institution would add works to the show reflecting its region. But after the exhibition opened in Tacoma, a protest by the Tacoma Action Collective that challenged the level of minority representation made augmenting the diversity of the original list of artists even more critical.
For this final presentation, works have been added by at least 13 artists that help tell the story of Chicago’s response to HIV/AIDS and make the show more inclusive. Among them are examples by Roger Brown, Doug Ischar, Oliverio “Oli” Rodriguez, Danny Sotomayor and Israel Wright.
“Art AIDS America” was conceived around 2004-05, and it took 10 years to secure financial support and find institutions willing to take part. “I did ‘Hide/Seek,’ the first major queer museum exhibition at the Smithsonian (Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in 2010-11),” Katz said. “I thought I had climbed Mount Everest. But it was nothing compared to this exhibition.”
A subtitle that Katz and co-curator Rock Hushka tentatively considered for this show was “How AIDS Changed American Art,” because the epidemic exerted a major impact on the subsequent development of art in this country. But much of that impact never registered. Because of the controversial nature of the subject matter, artists were forced to express themselves via fleeting, activist projects that were not seen in mainstream settings or via “camouflaged” works that were about AIDS but did not telegraph that fact.
“What we found,” Katz said, “is that the artists who chose to camouflage quickly rose to prominence, and some of them like Gonzalez-Torres, who is widely considered to be the most significant American artist of the last quarter of the 20th century, made work that was almost exclusively about AIDS but not explicitly so.”
The show includes examples of the activist work but its puts particular emphasis on these camouflaged self-expressions, such as Scott Burton’s “Two-Part Chair” (1986), which looks like an ordinary piece of corporate furniture.
“But look at it from the side,” Katz said, “and it tells a different story. Burton’s chair insinuates gay sex so obliquely that it deliberately reads as furniture, not as politics, a winkingly subversive take engineered to smoothly find its place in the lair of the enemy, such that a businessman could, and did, sit comfortably on it, unaware of its ‘other’ implications.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.