Surviving AIDS with art & defiance
by Sura Wood
Thirty years ago, an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence. But thanks to the tenacity of vociferous activists and the life-saving treatments whose development they helped expedite, many, though not all, people with the virus are currently living with what has come to be regarded as a manageable disease. The phenomenon of and fallout from surviving an epidemic that took a tremendous toll, psychic and physical, on the gay community has been filtering into the sensitive, tuning-fork psyches of artists who have begun to interpret and address issues and emotions surrounding AIDS in their work. The latest iteration, Long-Term Survivor Project, now at SF Camerawork's minimalist, white-walled space in mid-Market, includes thoughtful images and varied approaches by three gay photographers: Hunter Reynolds, Frank Yamrus and Grahame Perry, who grapple with the subject.
"I think that there was a time where survival didn't seem possible," reflects the San Francisco-based Perry, whose color-picture collages document with flair the travails of someone who's HIV-positive. "It was followed by a slowly returning belief that I (we) would have a future. There was some anger at what I had gone through and an effort to turn the page, to focus on something else. Yet dealing with HIV and its effect had become so much of my life." Perry faces an onerous daily drug regimen, as well as a recurring loop of blood draws and paraphernalia that are inescapable reminders of an ongoing battle to maintain his health. In The Materials of Survival, he photographs patterned pieces such as "Memories of Medicine," in which he has stacked prescription bottles that coalesce into a blurry pharmaceutical pyramid, while the top-most point of a triangle of pills stretches out in the foreground toward the viewer in a bluish haze. "AIDS Typewriter" shows an old-fashioned typewriter in rainbow colors, its reordered keys referring to the names of drugs and test results. The last image, "Every AIDS Obituary," which resembles a photographic contact sheet, is one of a dozen panels taken from a larger work where the artist appropriated obituaries published in this paper of people who died from AIDS between 1982 and 2005. (An expanded version is on display at SOMArts until June 27.). "Survival can make me wonder why I am still here [and] others I knew and loved are not," Perry observes in an exhibition text-panel. "While the anxiety, fear and loss of the past decades have decreased significantly, the knowledge of how HIV has transformed and burdened our lives has deepened."
New York visual artist Hunter Reynolds integrates performance, photography and installation to convey a multi-faceted experience of being HIV-positive. A seminal member of ACT UP and co-founder of Art Positive, an organization that confronts homophobia and censorship in the arts, his work here is essentially an archive of his personal, artistic and activist histories. Each of five large-scale 48 x 60 inch panels in Survival Aids is composed of multiple individual images woven together. His rich tapestries of history and reportage integrate clippings of HIV/AIDS and LGBT articles from The New York Times, dating from 1989 to 1993, Reynolds had collected. In 2010, he began sifting through them, using the material to revisit and comment on older bodies of work. He scanned and, in some cases, altered headlines and stories about the cancellation of a Mapplethorpe exhibition; gays in the military; efforts to save the discos; news of Nureyev's illness, among other topics. The reconstructed newsprint serves as a grid for enlarged spots of Reynolds' HIV-positive blood (from an earlier performance project); pictures of his gender-bending alter ego, Patina du Prey, modeling a strapless "Memorial Dress" imprinted with the names of 25,000 who died from AIDS; and, in a section titled "Why We Fight," a rumination on an ACT UP "fighting for our lives" demonstration. Reynolds, wrapped like a mummy in a glittery superhero skin, is pulled by a rope tied around his bound ankles, his fist thrust high in a gesture of defiance.
Unlike the two other participants in the show, Frank Yamrus tested negative for AIDS, while his former long-time partner, whom he still considers family, tested positive and has survived for 27 years. Yamrus, who has buried countless friends, has contributed eight dignified documentary portraits from A Sense of a Beginning, a series of 38 color photographs of his friends and acquaintances, mostly in their 50s and 60s, who are living with the disease and whose very existence is a testament to human resilience and, perhaps, the vagaries of fate. "It was a war on some level," Yamrus recalls. "So much bad stuff came out of the AIDS epidemic, but for many people there were things that put us on a different path, and for that I am grateful. It truly impacted my sensibility." Some of his subjects bear the ravages of the disease, and all share a sober gaze that suggests they've looked death in the eye and won't soon forget the view. "I really don't want these people to be forgotten," he says. "It's a miracle they're alive."
Through July 18.