Tacoma Art Museum has opened a new exhibit called "Art AIDS America." It includes what co-curator Jonathan David Katz calls the first work of AIDS art, an abstract piece from 1981 by Israeli-born artist Izhar Patkin.
It’s an abstract canvas of rubber paste and latex that Katz describes as “a rather visceral painful, even unattractive picture of a kind of dull yellow with eruptions of black and red boils in it. They look actually very much like the lesions of Kaposi sarcoma.”
Artist Patkin was in his doctor's office when he saw a group of young men with the lesions. Katz said that at the time there was no publicity on AIDS, but Patkin had heard vague rumors of a “new gay disease” that he assumed was sexually transmitted.
“He calls the painting ‘Unveiling of a Modern Chastity’ – remarkably prescient title,” Katz said.
The exhibit also includes the more overtly political piece “Let the Record Show” by ACT UP New York. But according to Katz, the well-known political art only tells part of the story of AIDS art.
He said most of the works don’t have a “foregrounded political ideology” and many of the pieces in the exhibit actually conceal the theme of AIDS.
“It's finally bringing all of this work about AIDS out of the closet, all of this art work about AIDS that has not yet been fully understood in its proper context,” Katz said.
Rock Hushka, chief curator at Tacoma Art Museum and co-curator of the exhibit, explained hidden messaging this way:
"I think a really useful metaphor to understand this is the way HIV affects the human body. In the early works in the exhibition, AIDS is often very overtly expressed by portraits or images of wasting and physical decay. But later when the AIDS cocktail, a combination of retroviral drugs, makes AIDS largely disappear from American society, the presence of HIV also becomes harder and harder to detect."
Katz said artists who wanted to address AIDS in the early 1980s had to conceal their theme.
“Being a trickster was absolutely necessary because of the larger social context, because of federal laws that banned any mention of either gay or AIDS related issues in art if you were getting any federal support,” he said.
The federal laws he is referring to were from Sen. Jess Helms, R-N.C., who made it part of an appropriations bill. “That was actually to fund, believe it or not, AIDS education, and it also included a ban on any representation of AIDS or AIDS causes,” Katz said.
One example of how artists hid their message is David Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (Buffalo).” It’s a diorama of a buffalo fall, a traditional method of harvesting large numbers of buffalo by chasing herds off cliffs.
The buffalo are made from plastic. Wojnarowicz photographed the diorama and cropped it.
“This is appropriation,” Hushka said. “He used it as this extraordinarily eloquent cry about the state of American politics at the time.”
Katz added, "It's telling that even an artist of Wojnarowicz’s activist fervor engaged in a metaphor that only cohered in the mind's eye. You needed to be attentive to what it might be saying to read it. There's nothing specifically AIDS about it."
Hushka said he wants visitors to leave the exhibit with an idea of how these pieces changed the course of American art.
“I want people to understand that AIDS shaped the way American artists make art,” he said. “It could be directly or it could be through a series of influences, but you can't talk about American art today without thinking about the legacy of the AIDS crisis.”
The Tacoma Art Museum’s "Art AIDS America" exhibit is on view until Jan. 10.