Revisiting 'Art Aids America'

A return visit to Tacoma Art Museum's "most affecting" exhibition

By Alec Clayton on October 29, 2015

I must return to Tacoma Art Museum at least one more time to slowly peruse the "Art AIDS America" exhibition, which is likely the most affecting exhibition ever mounted at TAM and the most thorough exhibition on the AIDS epidemic ever mounted anywhere in America. There is simply too much to take in on a single visit. Plus, there are many planned discussions, workshops and other events in conjunction with the show, including an artist talk and performance by notorious performance artist Karen Finley, and a rare opportunity to talk with members of the artist collective, Gran Fury.

One of the first things to strike my eye upon entering the first gallery was a little photo by Peter Hujar of his bedroom, "Ruined Bed, Newark." Hujar was closely associated with Andy Warhol and famous for his book Portraits in Life and Death, featuring portraits of Susan Sontag, Candy Darling, Devine and his lover, David Wojnarowicz. This photo is gripping, dark, moody and beautifully composed. Hujar and Wojnarowicz both died of AIDS-related illnesses.

Similar to Hujar's photo, but even more disquieting, is Shimon Attie's photo of a bed with the ghostly projected image of Axel H., a friend of the artist who also died of AIDS.

David Lebe's photograph, "Morning Ritual 29," is a self-portrait of the artist injecting his morning medicine. It is gut-wrenching.

Easily overlooked but powerful, is Charles LeDray's untitled teddy bear in a casket. LeDray, who was born in Seattle, made many of these little boxes with padded interiors and teddy bears representing people who died of AIDS. It is much more moving than can possibly be conveyed in words.

Izhar Patkin's "Unveiling of a Modern Chastity, 1981" is a large yellow panel with huge, gaping eruptions like Kaposi sarcoma lesions. It is breathtaking.

These are but four of 125 works by both famous and unknown artists.

Special events in conjunction with the exhibition include:

The AIDS Memorial Quilt with Julie Rhoad, Project Director of the NAMES Project Foundation, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2 p.m. Rhoad will share the quilt's history and evolution from personal memorial to the world's largest example of folk art. $10, $5 members/students.

Drop-In Art Workshop: Activism and Printmaking, Thursday, Nov. 19 at 5:30 p.m. This printmaking workshop with University of Puget Sound art professor Janet Marcavage focuses on making creative, bold graphic statements. $15, $10 members/students.

Faith and Positivity: An Interfaith Panel About HIV/AIDS, Thursday, Nov. 19 at 6 p.m. This discussion with Tacoma-area faith leaders is free.

Art Salon: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on "Art AIDS America," Sunday, Nov. 22 at 2 p.m.

World AIDS Day program with Pierce County AIDS Foundation, Tuesday, Dec. 1.

Artist Talk with Karen Finley, Saturday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. $10, $5 members/students.

Closing Celebration featuring "condom couture" fashion show, Sunday, Jan. 10, noon to 4 p.m. with discussion by Gran Fury at 3 p.m. $10, $5 members/students.

"Art AIDS America," Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Jan. 10, 2016, $12-$14, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma,