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Art AIDS America exhibit comes to Lincoln Park

Brian Pearlman

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AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) doesn’t make the headlines as often as it used to. First inaccurately called “gay cancer” and then GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) in the early 1980s, it took nearly 90,000 American lives by the end of 1989.

Featuring 170 significant works of contemporary art, Art AIDS America aims to bring some of that press back.

The exhibition, running at the Alphawood Gallery through April 2, reminds viewers that AIDS has and will always be part of the American cultural fabric — both politically and artistically. Many of the pieces function as overt activist messages, but a good deal of the art relies on metaphors that, placed in a different curatorial context, might evade any AIDS-related meanings.

Take, for instance, Whitfield Lovell’s “Wreath” (2000), a charcoal drawing of an African-American man on a circular piece of wood, ringed with barbed wire. The piece is mysterious, innocuous — not overt, like Jonathan Horowitz’s 2004 image juxtaposition of Ronald Reagan photos and an emaciated AIDS victim shown at the museum.

Today it still disproportionately affects gay and bisexual black men, but medical science has shown progress in the way of PrEP and antiretroviral therapy. And while it doesn’t get as much press as it did at the end of the 20th century, 36.7 million people worldwide were still living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus in 2015.

The placard on the wall spells it out for us: the man inside the barbed wire wreath represents a martyr, striking a “melancholy, even macabre tone,” that the curators thought nicely jibed with exhibition’s themes. This isn’t surprising, since co-curator Jonathan Katz told ARTnews in an interview last year “much that hasn’t been identified as AIDS art is in fact AIDS art.”

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Karen Finley’s “Ribbon Gate” (2015) was originally created as a participatory AIDS memorial for Londoners. (Photo by Brian Pearlman / The DePaulia)

That idea might be cloying for some, but it lends the exhibition a nice diversity. “Let the Record Show” (2015) by Gran Fury, a recreation of an installation made in 1987 features pictures of Reagan, Jesse Helms and others underneath a scrolling LCD text display and a neon sign reading “Silence = Death.” “Untitled” (1984) by David Wojnarowicz, depicts a horse’s skull wrapped in a world map collage and barbed wire, with clocks for eyes, a globe in its mouth and bright yellow teeth; all are symbols suggesting the march of entropy and the urgency of the now — potent meanings in 1984, when over 5,500 people died from the AIDS virus.

Photographs and multimedia installations are well represented too, many with a special emphasis on women and people of color. On the second level of the bank-turned gallery space, visitors can view the urgent, uniquely-shot Marlon Riggs pseudo-documentary “Tongues Untied” (1989), which includes poetry and vignettes about both the harsh realities and cultural pride experienced by gay black men in the late ’80s.

Ann P. Meredith’s 1987 photo of several women with AIDS (one of many the artist took from 1987 to 1997) is a testament to the sometimes negative repercussions of going public with the disease. Two of the women’s faces have literally been cut out of the frame and spray-painted black after they confided to the artist that they feared losing their employment, their children, or worse. Their portraits are gone, but the metaphor is clear: society can often make people with AIDS feel stricken from the record.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Art AIDS America is that, though the “AIDS Epidemic” of the ’80s and ’90s is over, AIDS itself certainly is not. And perhaps one of the best ways to understand not only what AIDS is but what AIDS does — from 1981 all the way up to the present day — is to tune our ears and listen.

Art AIDS America continues at the Alphawood Gallery (2401 N. Halsted St.) through April 2, 2017.

DePaul Art Museum is also hosting a concurrent exhibition with Art AIDS America, entitled “One day this kid will get larger,” featuring more works by contemporary artists that explore the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic in North America.

For more information visit http://www.artaidsamericachicago.org.

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Art AIDS America exhibit comes to Lincoln Park