“Arts AIDS America,” a moving new show at the Tacoma Art Museum, charts cultural responses to the HIV crisis — beginning with an artist’s 1981 rendering of Kaposi sarcoma lesions before anyone had realized their significance.

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For many people, AIDS feels like history — but the spread of HIV in this country isn’t even remotely under control.

Patte Loper’s “Architecture Review 1978 (After the Shoot),” an oil and acrylic on paper from 2006.
Patte Loper’s “Architecture Review 1978 (After the Shoot),” an oil and acrylic on paper from 2006.

As Tacoma Art Museum chief curator Rock Hushka writes in the catalog for TAM’s new show “Art AIDS America,” more than a million Americans are living with HIV, and 50,000 new cases appear each year.

Still, the living memory of the peak nightmare years, when no AIDS treatment was in sight, belongs primarily to the generation born between the 1940s and 1960s.

EXHIBITION REVIEW

“Art AIDS America”

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays; through Jan. 10, 2016. Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; $12-$14 (253-272-4258 or tacomaartmuseum.org).

From the first newspaper accounts of an ominous new “gay cancer” in 1981 to the mushrooming number of deaths in the mid-1990s (before medical advances made AIDS a manageable disease for those who could afford treatment), the epidemic was a defining event of an entire generation’s youth and young adulthood.

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That’s not the case these days.

People over 50 may have easily retriggered memories of those years, but people in their 20s mostly experience them vicariously through books, plays, artworks or films. “Art AIDS America,” co-curated by Hushka and queer-studies art scholar Jonathan David Katz tries to span that experience gap.

It begins with stark images tied to the emergence of AIDS, then traces the often subtle ripple effects of the epidemic in the arts over the last 30-odd years.

Hushka and Katz argue that AIDS changed the very nature of art-making in the ’80s. The urgency of the experience took priority over debates about art-world “isms.” Practice outweighed theory.

Bill Jacobson’s “Interim Portrait #3,” a chromogenic color print from 1992.
Bill Jacobson’s “Interim Portrait #3,” a chromogenic color print from 1992.

Hushka first conceived the exhibition 10 years ago as a remembrance of AIDS-era artworks. But in his collaboration with Katz (co-curator of the Smithsonian’s “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” which toured to TAM in 2012), the show became “more than just a reminder” of a half-forgotten artistic past.

“Jonathan, in particular, helped formulate this notion of AIDS as being the heart of American creativity for the last 30 years,” Hushka explained in a recent interview. “But how do you show that, when — like the virus today — that presence is undetectable and everywhere simultaneously?”

“Art AIDS America” takes it a step at a time, starting with premonitions.

Izhar Patkin’s “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity” (1981) emerged from something the artist noticed in the waiting room of his dermatologist’s office: young men who all had dark purple lesions on their skin. At first, the painting’s concoction of rubber paste, latex “theatrical wounds” and printing ink seems like an exercise in abstract expressionism. But its “wounds” are AIDS-related Kaposi sarcoma (KS) lesions, accurately — and chillingly — depicted before anyone understood their significance.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph “Untitled (Flowers)” was taken in 1983, after Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome had been given a name, but no test for it existed. The photo’s monstrously enlarged shadow of wilting lilies looms like a specter portending nothing good.

Alon Reininger’s 1985 portrait of Ken Meeks, a patient with AIDS and Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions, in San Francisco.
Alon Reininger’s 1985 portrait of Ken Meeks, a patient with AIDS and Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions, in San Francisco.

As the decade progressed, some artists faced the ravages of the disease head-on. Alon Reininger’s photograph “Ken Meeks, PWA” (or “person with AIDS”) and Judy Chicago’s mixed-media “Homosexual Holocaust, Study for Pink Triangle Torture” both graphically document KS devastation.

Others took a more sidelong but no less affecting approach. Karen Finley’s quietly interactive “Written in Sand” (1992) is an open, sand-filled steamer trunk with instructions for viewers to write the name of someone they’ve lost to AIDS in the sand, then gently erase it.

Artists used every possible medium to wrestle with the plague that had so unexpectedly descended upon them. (Remember: This generation grew up thinking it lived in an infection-curable world, thanks to antibiotics and vaccination programs — a notion that AIDS turned on its head.) Seattle painter Michael Ehle’s gouache on rice paper, “Fakir,” and Brett Reichman’s oil on canvas, “And the Spell Was Broken Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” both from 1992, are low-key heartbreakers.

“Fakir,” a 1992 painting by Michael Ehle, was a response to the many needle sticks the artist endured during his treatment for AIDS.
“Fakir,” a 1992 painting by Michael Ehle, was a response to the many needle sticks the artist endured during his treatment for AIDS.

“Fakir” was a response to the endless doctors’ needle pricks Ehle endured during his treatments for AIDS. Reichman’s swinging, rainbow-hued clocks in “Spell Was Broken” have something of the demolition ball about them.

Photography accounts for about a quarter of the show. Andres Serrano’s “Blood and Semen III” (1990) seems a sumptuous abstraction — until you read its title. Bill Jacobson’s “Interim Portrait #373” is obviously figurative, but with its subject — a young man’s startled facial expression — elusively blurred at the edges.

The installations can pack a wallop as well. Kiki Smith’s “Red Spill” (1996), a memorial to her sister who died of AIDS in 1988, takes the form of dozens of blood-platelet-like glass discs strewn across the floor.

The exhibition’s more recent pieces strike simultaneously militant and playful homoerotic notes, rather than sounding an alarm. “Eden #31” by the photographic team LADZ (John Arsenault and Adrian Gilliland) is ablaze with struggle and sexual energy — the frame contains two boxers in locked embrace, their stars-and-stripes boxing gloves obscuring their faces. Arsenault’s “There Never Was a Woman of My Dreams,” a photo of him and his partner enjoying a bathtub romp, is even cheekier.

More unexpected is Patte Loper’s 2006 oil and acrylic on paper, “Architecture Review 1978 (After the Shoot),” in which a stag has smashed into a glass-walled living room and is staring at the fireplace.

Hushka’s intuition about the source of the painting’s anxiety-inducing atmosphere was confirmed when Loper told him, “You know, when I was in graduate school, I was taking care of all my friends, and I was terrified that something was going to burst out of me — something natural … that I couldn’t understand.”

“Art AIDS America” helps us comprehend it.

(Be advised: Some of the images are explicit and troubling.)

Brett Reichman, “And the Spell Was Broken Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” oil on canvas, 1992. The rainbow-hued swinging clocks look like demolition balls.
Brett Reichman, “And the Spell Was Broken Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” oil on canvas, 1992. The rainbow-hued swinging clocks look like demolition balls.