“Art AIDS America Chicago” is an unprecedented exhibition, staggering in its breadth, emotiveness and illumination, and it is not on display in any of the city’s art museums. Organized by the Tacoma Art Museum and first on display in West Hollywood in honor of the city’s 25th anniversary, and opening first at Tacoma Art Museum in the fall of 2015. From here, it toured to the Zuckerman in the Atlanta area, then at the Bronx Museum of Arts in New York, the exhibition in Chicago is hosted by the Alphawood Foundation in a bank renovated for this purpose near DePaul University’s campus, and just a few blocks from Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood on the north side of the city. The Chicago version of the exhibition was expanded to include a large number of local artists, re-emphasizing that AIDS was (and is) not only a Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York problem. Even for those of us in the art world who think we know every corner of our field, “Art AIDS America Chicago” is a true education. With 177 works, this show explicates how the art created during and after the AIDS crisis is not a footnote or a sub-genre in art history, but something that impacted the course of it.
Upon entering the gallery, a viewer passes through the blue beaded curtain of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Water) (1995), revealing a high-ceilinged room with a handful of large, museum-scaled works like Chicagoan Roger Brown’s painting Peach Light from 1983, referencing the lighting a gay bar in Chicago used to help mask the physical symptoms of its patrons suffering from AIDS. Across the room, Gran Fury’s Let the Record Show… (1987) combines neon, photomontage and text reminding viewers of the absurd, terrifying statements made during the AIDS crisis, including William F. Buckley’s suggestion that HIV positive people should be tattooed to warn others of their virus, and Ronald Reagan’s notorious silence on the subject, notated here with an ellipses: “…”
Encircling this two-story room on both floors are a number of former offices, vaults and hallways, now an interconnected network of galleries heavily hung with works of varied and complex contents. Expectedly, a lot of these are addressing fear, anger, loss and stigma. Camilo Godoy’s Criminal Transmission (720 ILCS 5/12-5.01) (2013/2016) touches upon multiple kinds of anxiety surrounding the virus. Inside a glass case sits a lavender bar of soap infused with semen and embossed with the word “Criminal,” suggesting not only the obvious fear of being exposed to HIV, but the fear of being accused of exposing someone to it: a felony in the state of Illinois and many others, as the artist reminds us. Daniel Goldstein’s Shroud of Turin-like piece, Icarian I Incline (1993) memorializes countless gay men who died in the Bay Area with the unstretched leather from a heavily worn workout bench; just as this re-presentation of an everyday item transforms it into an icon, so too does Goldstein’s piece suggest the spiritual rallying that accompanied and elevated the familiar ritual of meeting one’s friends at the gym.
In addition to the painful emotional content of this exhibition, there is also some warmth and humor. Oli Rodriguez’s photographs of former gay cruising spots in The Papi Project are part of a search for men who decades ago hooked up with the artist’s father (who died from AIDS when Rodriguez was a teen), tracking them down using Craigslist ads that promise an “encounter.” This retracing of his father’s steps through the Chicago gay community of the 1980s reads as an earnest search for paternal connection, while still tinged with the aura of risk that accompanies the anonymity of the digital world. Kalup Linzy’s video Lollypop (2006) is one of several pieces in the show that are not outright commentary on HIV/AIDS; here, the artist and his male collaborator Shaun Leonardo perform a campy, shirtless lip-synch to a 1930s song in which a male voice attempts to get a female character to give him her “candy.” It’s a saucy, sex-positive piece positioned adjacent to the exhibition’s free testing clinic, which speaks volumes about where we are today with HIV awareness, a (somewhat) customary part of responsible sex lives.
So too do Patric McCoy’s 1980s photographs of Black gay men from the Rialto Bar in Chicago emphasize the happier moments to be found amongst the hazards of the AIDS crisis. Accompanying the wall text about the images themselves is an HIV/AIDS factoid—the shocking statistic from the Black AIDS Institute that approximately 60% of Black gay men will have HIV by age 40. Throughout the exhibition, such facts on the subject are intermingled with the narrative and metaphorical contents of the artworks. If “Art AIDS America Chicago” is didactic, it is a rare instance in which this adds exponentially to the artistic experience instead of detracting from it. This exhibition serves double duty: to herald the voices and artistic accomplishments of those who succumbed to, survived and are still motivated by the effects of the AIDS crisis, as well as to illustrate the truths about the past and present of AIDS that American culture still actively suppresses into silence.