Any arts event that has been 25 years in the making is going to get a lot of hype. So it was last weekend at Tacoma Art Museum, where the show “Art AIDS America” — dreamed of 25 years ago and organized over the last 10 — finally opened. It’s clearly a big deal for the museum: Media had 45 minutes of speeches before even seeing the art; artists were flown in; the museum made T-shirts and pins.
Is it worth it? Yes. Not just because “Art AIDS America” deals with one of the biggest social issues of our time, but because the very things in this art that make the hype necessary — the blood, sex, death and raw emotion — are also what makes it powerful. This show is hard to look at, and that’s why it’s so important to look.
Interestingly, one of the best things about “Art AIDS America” is not the issues or the astonishing roster of American artists who address them. It’s the spatial arrangement. With 127 works, this is one enormous show (which could have been smaller) with some enormous works. It just doesn’t fit into one gallery, but local curator Rock Hushka — whose master’s thesis on art activists Gran Fury inspired the whole thing 25 years ago and who worked with East Coast academic Jonathan Katz to organize it — has used his four galleries with thoughtful symbolism.
If you start in the lowest room, you’re in a tight cave of fear, exactly as all of America was in the 1980s when a mysterious illness started killing young gay men. Hushka has hung his works closely, even threateningly, beginning with subdued omens like Robert Mapplethorpe’s exquisite photogravure of lilies menaced by their own bat-like shadow; Alon Reininger’s horrific portrait of the dying Ken Meeks, his skin lesions spotlit; and Peter Hujar’s photo-metaphor of a trashed, ruined bedroom right next to his deathbed homage by lover David Wojnarowicz.
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The gallery then opens up to full realization of the extent of the epidemic: Izhar Patkin blowing up those skin lesions in grotesquely pink “wounds” emerging from jaundice-yellow paint, a panel of the AIDS quilt, Masami Teraoka’s towering watercolor geisha ripping open a condom packet while Death apologizes for being late in elegant ink. Nan Goldin’s grid of photo portraits of her dead friends sings a haunting lament. The gallery gets a little breathing room with Karen Finley’s “Written in Sand,” a weathered trunk filled with gray sand inviting visitors to write the names of those lost to AIDS therein. Nearby, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Still Life)” sits quietly, the stack of papers shrinking as visitors take them. Don’t miss the timeline tucked away in the corner — the juxtaposition of artwork with political and social events against a rising yellow mountain of HIV infections is an excellent primer.
As you ascend out of that gallery, the next one opens up into what Katz calls “poetic postmodernism,” art that uses deconstructive tools to recreate a social awareness. Kiki Smith’s lopsided glass blood cells, glutinously red over the gallery floor, seem to shift and flow as you walk around them. Adam Rolston’s stack of Trojan condom boxes bring Warhol’s ideas and sexuality into sharp fusion. Wojnarowicz, one of the 30-odd artists in the show who died from AIDS complications, is placed as the centerpiece, his silver print image of muscly buffalo toppling over a cliff eerily quiet in the space.
There are stairs up into the corridor gallery, but that’s clearly not the way Hushka and Katz want you to move. Instead, Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Water)” — a curtain of shimmery aqua beads — hangs like a gateway to the next life in the doorway, touching you gently as you split it open. In the corridor between galleries, the show focuses on portraiture, some graphic (Kia Labeija, born with HIV, sick with medication on her bathroom floor) and some painfully symbolic (Arch Connelly’s sequin-encrusted mirror, a reference to loss of sight from AIDS). It makes some art-historical points, like the huge influences of both Gonzalez-Torres and Wojnarowicz on younger artists, but most striking is Hushka’s placement of Eric Avery’s “HIV Condom Filled Pinatas,” floating like planets or cells in the gap between galleries, a symbol of permeation and penetration.
Finally, you ascend to the largest gallery, holding the biggest, in-your-face works. Again, though, the curation aids the metaphors. Through Jim Hodges’ ethereal yellow-orange flower curtain, draped from floor to ceiling, you glimpse the skull-stars and blood-stripes of Luis Azaceta’s “Babies with AIDS” flag. A quiet wall of spiritually-themed works like Patrick Webb’s serene, Old Master oils of a dying Punchinello forms an open space with Keith Haring’s bronze altarpiece, the many-armed, heart-faced god gathering in a soul over an angry mob. It’s backed by a lurid orange wall, echoing Haring’s frantic cartoon swipes in the “Apocalypse” series; behind it is the mortal world, with Catherine Opie’s photographic accounts of 1980s AIDS protests, Barbara Kruger’s louder-than-life “We Are Pleased to Disgust You” and the Gran Fury work that kickstarted the whole thing, “Let the Record Show,” recreated in neon signage and projection for an image that’s less like art than a window into a past.
“Art AIDS America” isn’t perfect. There are a few works (like Kalup Linzy’s sexy lipsynch “Lollypop”) that seem to be in there only because they’re about gay male sexuality — which run the risk of turning HIV/AIDS back into its initial stereotype of only a “gay men’s disease.” Fewer works and more space might have also made the educational part of this exhibit a little easier to take in for the average visitor.
Mostly, however, Hushka and Katz have achieved a fine balance between provocation and calm, between sickness and hope, between horror and the human strength that overcomes it. This isn’t just an art show about a 1980s crisis — it’s a show about the human condition framed through the lens of AIDS, and anyone who cares about humanity needs to see it.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568
ART AIDS AMERICA
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday Oct. 3-Jan. 10.
Admission: $14 adult/$12 senior, student, military/free for 5 and under and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays.
Events: National Coming Out Day celebration, 10 a.m. Friday (Oct. 9); artist talk with Micha Cárdenas, 6:30 p.m. Thursday; “My Brother Kissed Mark Zuckerberg” theater performance, 7 p.m. Oct. 23; AIDS Memorial Quilt, 2 p.m. Nov. 15; interfaith panel on art and HIV/AIDS, 6 p.m. Nov. 19; panel on psychoanalysis, art and AIDS, 2 p.m. Nov. 22; World AIDS Day, 10 a.m. Dec. 1; artist talk with Karen Finley, 2 p.m. Dec. 5; “Struggle and Strength” opens Dec. 9; “Condom Couture” closing party (noon) and artist talk with Gran Fury collective, 3 p.m. Jan. 10.
Note: “Art AIDS America” contains many graphic and adult images. Preview it before you take your children.
Information: 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org.