Inside Tacoma Art Museum is a photograph of former economics professor Ken Meeks. He’s sitting in a wheelchair with a hospital gown wrapped around his slender body. On his pale white arm are clusters of reddish-brown lesions, a symptom of AIDS. But it’s his face — the piercing wide eyes, high cheekbones, and raised brows — that says it all.
The photo ran in a 1986 LIFE magazine along with more images by Alon Reininger, who managed through art to put a human face on a disease that many Americans at the time were refusing to acknowledge. Many labeled it as a “gay disease.” Reininger’s portraits prompted the public not only to see AIDS for what it was, but to better relate to the tens of thousands of people who were dying from it.
The haunting image of Meeks can be seen at the Art AIDS America exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum through Jan. 10 before it tours the country.
Art AIDS America was organized by the Tacoma Art Museum in partnership with The Bronx Museum of the Arts, and co-curated by Rock Hushka, chief curator at Tacoma Art Museum, and Jonathan David Katz from the University of Buffalo.
“Instead of being this tragic and tangential moment that happened in the past, AIDS continues to be the great repressed motor of American creativity,” Hushka said. “What we wanted to show is that the effect of the AIDS crisis was so profound that it literally redirected the course of American art.”
The exhibit is emotional, educational, and moving, to say the least. From crayon drawings by hospitalized patients to self portraits of modern artists grappling with what it means to be HIV-positive today, the exhibit showcases how HIV and AIDS have forever left an imprint on art and life for the past 30 years.
Artists and their subjects, who were often silenced by homophobia, and shunned no matter what their lifestyles for contracting HIV/AIDS, turned to art to express themselves.
In the Art AIDS America exhibit, a series of rooms showcase their courage and creativity. The collections display the rippling effects art can have on helping create social awareness and change.
A re-creation of one of Gran Fury’s pieces, Let the Record Show, is a powerful example of that. “Silence = Death” is illuminated on the wall, above images of public figures who ignored or downplayed the disease, or insulted those who had it. Gran Fury, an artist collective, was known for its public awareness campaigns that pushed the subject of AIDS in front of many Americans who tried to look the other way.
“(Ronald) Reagan did not give a public speech about AIDS until the last year of his presidency,” Hushka said, adding that not addressing it and funding research was equivalent to a war crime. By the time Reagan addressed the disease in 1987, nearly 40,000 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS, and half had already died.
For Hushka, Art AIDS America isn’t just another exhibit that hangs on the white walls of Tacoma Art Museum. It’s a project of gratitude. He’s been working on it for 10 years. It took time to find the right museum partners and secure loans.
Days before the exhibit debuted, Hushka stood in a sunshine-filled room at the museum explaining what Art AIDS America means to him.
“As a young undergraduate and graduate student, I was always startled by the ideals surrounding art. Art is supposed to be this precious important thing, and I could never understand why,” he said. “As I settled on my topic of Gran Fury, and the effects of its graphics for my master’s thesis, I could point to artists who were making the world better; that were helping people.”
Holding back tears, he paused. As a gay man, he feels like Gran Fury’s work toward awareness quite literally saved his life 20 years ago.
“It’s important to remember that the AIDS crisis is not over. There are 1.2 million Americans who are living with HIV. Every 10.5 minutes on average, another American citizen becomes HIV-positive.”— Rock Hushka, chief curator, Tacoma Art Museum
Avram Finkelstein, a founding member of Gran Fury who helped install the Let the Record Show piece, can relate to the touching experience of walking through the exhibit, remembering those lost and the panic that sparked an art movement.
“Everything about (the exhibit) is incredibly emotional,” he said. “The work that I’m most known for is incredibly political and very didactic but the reason for me making the work has to do with emotionality, has to do with having lost my boyfriend in 1984.”
While the exhibit is exclusive to the AIDS crisis, it’s truly centered on human experiences and emotions felt by all humanity. Mortality. Loss. Fear. Love. Anger.
“These are basic, simple, human issues that people turn a blind eye to because of the stigmatism of homophobia and fear,” said Carl Tandatnick, another featured artist. “But it crosses gender; it crosses sexual preferences; it crosses economic boundaries; it crosses everything. This is art for everyone.”
Much of Art AIDS America is unpleasant. It’s jarring and at times difficult to look at. The topic is dark. The fear and pain that are laced through much of the powerful work is highly effective. As a whole it’s provocative, something executive director of TAM Stephanie Stebich finds important in the art world.
“It’s OK that works of art make you uncomfortable,” she said after quoting President Barack Obama, who said:
“The job of the artist is to provoke.”
Art AIDS America serves as a reminder not only of the past, but also of the present. “It’s important to remember that the AIDS crisis is not over,” said Hushka. “There are 1.2 million Americans who are living with HIV. Every 10.5 minutes on average, another American citizen becomes HIV-positive.”
Meeks, the man pictured in the wheelchair in this exhibit, died three days after his photo was taken. He’d never live to see his face in LIFE magazine. But his portrait remains influential — art that continues to live on, telling his story.
Art AIDS America will be at Tacoma
Art Museum through Jan. 10.
Then it will travel across the country to Georgia and New York.