Organized by the nonprofit organization Visual AIDS, “NOT OVER: 25 Years of Visual AIDS” at La MaMa La Galleria in Bowery is a snapshot survey of AIDS related art and activism since 1980. Curators Kris Nuzzi and Sur Rodney brought together more than 40 artists’ work, including magazine covers, political comics, artist books, and documentary. Additional unlabeled materials – printouts of fliers, letters and email correspondences – are also included in the exhibition.
Nine photographs by Tim Greathouse make an immediate impression upon entering La MaMa La Galleria. Displayed centrally on the longest wall, they are close-up, black-and-white portraits of artists with AIDS who were working in the early 1980s, a few of whom are represented in “NOT OVER.” Nicholas Moufarrege’s embroidery work Banana Pudding (1982) hangs directly to the right of these photographs, and two paintings on mixed-media by Andreas Senser can be found on the adjacent wall to the right. Instead of a work of art by Richard Hoffman – another of Greathouse’s subjects – the curators included an email correspondence, transcribed below, which suggests that all of Hoffman’s remaining works are either missing or destroyed.
In an email dated May 18, 2013 Sur Rodney wrote a man named Paul:
I recall you once telling me of a man you had visited in Brooklyn whose lover had died and he kept all the artworks that his late lover left behind. The late lover’s name was Harry. Harry’s late lover was Richard Hoffman (pictured above). The works that this man you met has ALL the remaining works of the late Richard Hoffmann. I think this man needs to understand that.
I’ve clipped what i’ve attached above from my checklist for the NOT OVER exhibition that i’ve been organizing that will be opening at LaMaMa on June 1st. If you still have any contact with the man you met who is holding this wok. It’s important that any documentation be archived. Richard was very active on the LES during the 80s and left an indelible mark on the scene but somehow has faded in obscurity. working on this show is bringing this all back. Richard is a missing link to so much of that history. I seem to recall he was an only child and his mother lived in NJ.
Will you have this man, if you ever see him again, contact me. i don’t know what i have to offer him but i’d like to have a chat and i’m ever curious about Harry. What a sweet man he was.
A day later Paul replied:
After repeated inquiries went unanswered I put this mission on back burner. Sadly this archive was stored in the part of Red Hook completely devastated by Sandy. I doubt anything survived.
If and when I am able to contact him again I will ask further.
There is an elegiac and memorializing quality to Greathouse’s photographs of persons whose imprint on a moment in time can no longer be appreciated, indeed, whose life’s work may be completely lost to us.
In another instance of preserving memory, Gail Thacker, a photographer and director of the Gene Frankel Theatre, recounts in a recorded interview with Ethan Shoshan (Strange Birds [Gail Thacker], 2012) the day her friend Mark told her he had AIDS as part of a string of important moments in her life that have matured her as an artist and person. Mementos of these occasions are contained within a memory box passed down to Thacker from her father. Strange Birds is one example of how AIDS, like other monumental events, forced artists to think of the responsibility of their practice to open a dialogue that could effect change.
Many other works directly address the topic of AIDS or activism. A comic titled Isms from Michael Slocum’s comic strip series Zander Alexander PWA (1993-95) reveals with sardonic humor Slocum’s dissatisfaction with the inability of civil rights movements, catalyzed by the outbreak of AIDS, to shatter isms entirely.
His sentiment is echoed in Jack Waters’ and Peter Cramer’s multimedia installation Short Memory/No History (2000/2013) installed in a partitioned corner of the gallery. Short Memory/No History resembles a scrimpy bedroom and consists of a raised twin bed, an essay, computer and desk supplies at the head of the bed, various ephemera decorating the walls, and a portable transistor television looping four films. One of the videos Short Memory/No History: AIDS, Art, Activism (2000) presents interviews with four individuals who were involved with the direct action movement ACT UP – Sandra Elgear, Sarah Schulman, Esther Kaplan, and Robert Pacheco Vazquez. They speak about their role in the group and why they left, the group’s shortcomings and why it largely dissolved by 1993 (for instance the leaders of the movement hypocritically had greater access to treatment due the very capitalism they attacked), and how ACT UP’s activities along with the social frenzy surrounding the AIDS crisis have largely been forgotten today.
Vincent Chevalier’s video reenactment of a daytime talk show, So…when did you find out you had AIDS? (2010), mocks the insensitivity and counterproductive hysteria of figures in authority (in this case adults) in the face of a little understood disease. In the video, projected on one wall of the space housing Short Memory/No History, a 13-year-old Chevalier – the movie was filmed in 1996 – walks into a family living room and takes his place across from the host, played by Chevalier’s friend Kelsey Winchester. Answering questions which seem all the more sinister due to their facetious delivery, Chevalier as Kamni Chooputchi tells the story of how he contracted AIDS and what he plans to do before he dies. He drifts from monotonous recitation of facts to cries of depression, bouts of rage and catatonic silence. The video ends with the host screaming into the camera, “Find a cure God damn it!” before she tosses her head, smiles and introduces another guest with AIDS.
Relevant to contemporary worries that the marriage equality movement is a dead end when it comes to spearheading complete equality for LGBTQIA, Ryan Conrad’s poster Down is Not Up (2012) lists declarations beginning simply with the titular “Down is Not Up” and ending with the subversive statement “Equality is Not Justice.” However, Down is Not Up loses much of its intended impact, hung high above eye level on one of the gallery walls and lacking any contextual information. In fact, Conrad originally pasted 70 by 36 inch editions of this work in the streets of Portland, Maine, before the city’s 2012 pride parade.
The breadth of work in “NOT OVER” is significant and the impetus behind the show is worthy of further development; that is, to revive and draw upon a legacy of artists who have all but disappeared from public consciousness. The exhibition, however, due to its cramped and unannotated presentation, doesn’t quite accomplish the goal specified in the press release:
“[T]he exhibition aims to add to the ongoing dialogue and position the work within a layered timeline of AIDS, art and culture, using art as a means to educate, encourage discussion and inform that AIDS IS NOT OVER.”
In reality, the personal nuances of each work and its place on the timeline of art activism addressing AIDS is unclear, leaving many unanswered questions. How involved were artists in activist activities? How did artists influence one another? How has the focus shifted among artists and activist groups over time? There is a noticeable gap in works that date from the first decade of the 21st century, and we are left to wonder what sorts of AIDS related art were being produced in that period? (Although the correspondence between Sur Rodney and Paul may indicate why these are lacking.)
More than anything, “NOT OVER” succeeds in facilitating a dialogue among participant artists who are currently practicing. Newer works (made between 2010 and today) by Ethan Shoshan, Ryan Conrad and others make up a third of the exhibit. However, simply putting the work out there will not culminate in a wider discussion. If the interested reader would like to gain a fuller understanding of the exhibition I strongly suggest attending the curators’ talk “Making Sense of Paper, Glitter and Life” on Sunday, June 30.
Have you seen the show or gone to another Visual AIDS event this June? If so, what do you think of it? Reply in the comments below.