Unveiling the Resonant Context: Art AIDS America at the Tacoma Art Museum

When you are in a gallery with Izhar Patkin’s Unveiling of a Modern Chastity, it is hard to look at the painting, but it’s also hard to look anything else. Its thick, purple wounds bore through the canvas so viscerally, they exhume the pain of a person standing beside you that you want to help, except all you can do is look. This, in some sense, is the point of the 1981 painting—the earliest work in the exhibition Art AIDS America, at the Tacoma Art Museum. Rejecting the idea of pure abstraction, the urgency of life or death circumstances floods through its sickly, yellow surface and raw, fleshy texture, moving us to find a way to respond.— Erin Langner, Seattle contributor

Izhar Patkin | Unveiling of a Modern Chastity, 1981, rubber, latex, and ink on canvas. 
Courtesy the Artist.

Among the paintings in the show of 120 works that respond to AIDS, from the 1980s through the present, a call to action persists, while its volume varies widely.  Never reserved in her practice, Judy Chicago’s Homosexual Holocaust, Study for Pink Triangle Torture evokes concentration camps, derogatory language and suffering. Her painting of figures covered in lesions and wrought expressions enclosed within a pink triangle merges with images of pansies and skin tortured by the disease.  Implicating the viewer as a witness to the atrocities she depicts, Chicago’s piece refuses to be silenced.

Joey Terrill | Still-Life with Forget-Me-Nots and One Week’s Dose of Truvada, 2012. Mixed media on canvas, 36 × 48 inches. Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, Foundation purchase.

Martin Wong | Iglesia Pentecoastal Mansion de Luz, 1985, P.P.O.W.

Joey Terrill’s Still-Life with Forget-Me-Nots and One Week’s Dose of Truvada infuses the quieter language of the still-life with pressing questions about art’s role in a time of crisis. Assembling a collection of objects that includes a bouquet of forget-me-nots, David Wonjnarowicz’s self-portrait, and the antiviral medicine Truvada, we know everything on this table to be deeply personal, common only by brutal necessity.  Martin Wong’s Iglesia Pentecostal Mansion de Luz’s thick, textured layers bring to mind the techniques behind Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series, except Wong’s savior is chained and locked, made pointedly inaccessible to those who need it most.

Robert Sherer | Sweet Williams, 2013. HIV- and HIV+ blood on paper, 24 × 18 in. Courtesy of the artist.

But, not everything speaks at maximum volume in Art AIDS America. Many of the show’s greatest moments reside in the contrasts between approaches to its subject. Robert Sherer’s (NAP #28, #76) Sweet Williams portrays a delicate collection of flowers that references his grandmother’s advice to “cut down the most beautiful ones first.” Created using a combination of HIV-positive and -negative blood, the scene’s wistful sweetness is weighed down by the human lives embedded in its surface.  Thomas Haukaas’s subtle ink piece More Time Expected reconfigures Native American art’s symbol of the horse without a rider—traditionally representing a fallen warrior—to quietly reflect on the role of AIDS within contemporary culture.

Thomas Haukaas | More Time Expected, 2002 Handmade ink and pencil on antique ledger paper 16 /2 x 27 1/2 inches Tacoma Art Museum, Gift of Greg Kucera and Larry Yocom in honor of Rock Hushka.

In Glenn Ligon’s painting Untitled (I Am An Invisible Man), fading words introduce new meaning to Ralph Ellison’s text from Invisible Man. Those words become even more resonant when they are considered in the context of the disproportionate number of African-Americans whose existence was taken by AIDS. As one of only four black artists included in Art AIDS America, compared against the statistic of African-Americans representing 41% of people living with HIV in 2011, the disparity is undeniable, as protesters exposed through a recent “die-in” at the museum.

Deborah Kass
| Still Here, 2007. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 45 × 63 inches. Private collection. Image courtesy of the Tacoma Art Museum.

If Art AIDS America had only one takeaway, it would be art’s power to resound when it is understood within the greater context of history.  To that end, Art AIDS America also embodies the way voices continue to be left out of such discussions. As compelling as the exhibit’s paintings were, knowing relevant voices were excluded means the exhibit’s complete story remains untold. In this context, Deborah Kass’s painting Still Here took on another layer; AIDS itself persists, but the barriers for those living with the disease to tell their stories remain, too. As Art AIDS America moves on to its other venues, in Georgia and New York, the opportunity remains to follow the call to action issued by the artists in the show and seek the perspectives of those still not here.


Art AIDS America is on view at the Tacoma Art Museum through January 10. It will travel to the Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University in Georgia from February 20, 2016 through May 22, 2016 and to the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York from June 23, 2016 through September 11, 2016.

Erin Langner is a writer and a program associate at Seattle Arts & Lectures.


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