Visual AIDS Visual AIDS Visual AIDS 15h Annual Postcards From the Edge, January 25-27, 2013 The Body
Visual AIDS
Visual AIDS
  curator's statement may 2005 selection
      Visual AIDS


James Wagner
 
u n t i t l e d  ( a l l  o v e r  t h e  p l a c e )
c u r a t o r :  j a m e s  w a g n e r


I was scared. Amy had asked my partner Barry and me if we would curate a web gallery, either together or separately. We were both honored of course, and since Barry was in the midst of a large work project I agreed to go ahead separately. On my first visit to the Visual Aids files however I became "Slide-struck" almost immediately. I didn't know where to begin; I had no plan and I wasn't sure I was up to the assignment.

I come from a sturdy Midwestern environment which seemed to find no place for the arts, even though from my earliest years (after history, and with the exception of cars and sex) there was never anything which approached the importance of music, architecture, literature, dance and the visual arts in my life. I've had no formal arts studies however. My rebellion against practical, professional parents went only far enough to secure a wonderful, very traditional liberal arts education which kept me away from a real job (and Vietnam) until I was 29.

I've always been strongly attracted to the new and the odd, even if much of my personal style comes off looking pretty conservative. My interest in history kept me acquainted with the arts of earlier eras, but for a number of reasons I missed a great deal of the visual art of my own time; when I finally began seeking it out I went right into the art of the next time. I'm still there, and I confess I'm finding the work of emerging artists too exciting to go back to see what I've missed.

So I have no "discipline," however you define it, and that was my problem as I sat above a light box on 26th Street. Where was the serendipity? I'm used to having things jump out at me unexpectedly as I walk about, whether in a gallery, a museum, on a street or in any other informal setting. I like the hunt.

I tried coming up with a theme, but gave up the attempt almost immediately. I started going through the rich treasure of slides in front of me and before long I found that I could duplicate my normal experience by just letting the images connect with my head and my eye: My mind isn't quite a tabula rasa, in spite of being deprived of art school, and my aesthetic is not lazy. Regardless of the environment, I don't miss much, and I don't see much with indifference.

What shows up on this gallery is (some of) what attracted me, for any number of reasons, or for nothing which could be honored as reason. It's also work whose attractions did not fade with repeated scrutiny under the magnifier.

I decided to include two pieces from each artist because two seemed the minimum useful presentation for an artist whose work might not have been encountered before. [my selection of Steed Taylor's two images seriously undermines that approach, since his art is so much more than what he was doing when he was only six, but I just couldn't leave either of them in the file]

I had hoped to select only artists with whom I was not familiar, but the persistent seductions of a few very familiar names, some now gone, undermined my resolve. Perhaps they will be welcomed as new friends by viewers seeing the work for the first time.

There are no women here, and I'm both happy and saddened by their absence. The fact that there are very, very few women (one of the themes I had proposed to myself early on) in the Visual Aids files themselves is both a relief and a regret. To the extent that it represents their smaller numbers among the HIV+ it is of course a very good thing, but I suspect it also represents a reluctance to be identified, an unhealthy indicator for an entire society, especially in the 25th year of this epidemic.

Notes on the Artists

Sarawut Chutiwonpeti sometimes paints with light, as in the 1997 installation documented here, but his light is a mixed medium. He creates fantastic worlds in real space which read very well in two dimensions.

The digital print made three years later is a light painting of a different kind and dimension, but not unrelated. With the 2000 work there is just enough suggestion of figure and three-dimensional space to keep the eye moving into the image.

Robert Blanchon described the dimensions of his 1995 installation of what appear to be rubbings of modern gravestones awaiting the names of the dead as "36 inches X endless." Robert died in 1999 of complications from AIDS.

In an untitled framed C-print an obelisk, otherwise removed from its environment, stands sentinel beneath a perfect blue sky.

The photogram and graphite drawing of David Nelson are thoroughly baffling here without context, but their beauty is more than enough. I suspect this artist is one very smart poet.

Jimmy de Sana wasn't always in his own art physically, but his intensity was always there. These two examples are both blue coincidentally but both ineffably beautiful unavoidably. De Sana's work seemed to reinvent color by moving the conventional spectrum into an unimagined dimension or, as in these images, by subverting it with monochromes no less rich.

And always there was humor.

How did Bruce Cratsley manage to get a mannequin to look scary, silly and incredibly melancholy at the same moment?

Burst Balloon is enough to make even a grown man gasp, if he has retained the memory of childhood catastrophes, but like all of Cratsley's work it's also a perfect abstract composition. Stuff like this is never just a "found" image.

Barry and I have both often wondered why Mark Morrisroe's work is not better know than it is. It doesn't help to be dead of AIDS complications at 30, but death hasn't always been a career-ending move. I Dream of Jeannie is a portrait of his artist friend Stephen Tashjian, a/k/a Taboo!.

The beautiful late triptych uses his own hospital x-rays. What a guy.

Fred Weston's work doesn't seem to wander far from home, but it goes much, much further. I fell in love with Proud and Vain, reading the text over and over.

The collage, Blue Bathroom Blues is equally personal, and intensely so. Blues, yeah.

Barry Huff would have gotten my attention even without the title which dares you to look, Transition From Plato's Cave, but the image is no disappointment, even if we can't witness its scale: The canvas is 12 feet long!

Although the second work pictured here would normally seem to be about as far removed from the first as it could get, it too suggests a cave, even if Private Room is much closer to a real world.

This artist was definitely one of the real surprises for me: Ken Kostovny is represented here by two related works, although one is described as of mixed media [including photo collage], the other as acrylic. These look like pieces which are on a scale far more heroic than their dimensions (30" x 36"). They both literally explode with an extraordinary energy. A "chromatic way." This is very exciting work, even in tiny reproduction.

I've followed Steed Taylor's work for some time. I guess I'd have to say it's been at something of a distance, but I wish it wasn't so removed. Actually, in his best-know work Taylor himself has removed himself from his childhood photographs. He's written, contemplating his AIDS diagnosis, that he "decided to explore what my life would look like if I was removed from it. I selected the warmest photographs and marked myself out of these images."

Here I've selected two images, maybe not so warm, from which he never had to mark himself out, even if he's really right there where we are. At the time they were taken he was about six years old, and he was on the other side of the camera.

b i o g r a p h y

James Wagner is a delightedly retired New Yorker enjoying everything he ever wanted to do (actually he pretty much always did do what he wanted to do). Right now most of that "everything" seems to be a matter of trying not to miss out on much of what's being done by artists emerging into the light from their studios for the first time.

The arts have always been an important focus of his life, but until fairly recently he had always thought of himself as an outsider in that world, little more than a big fan. A big fan. He jump-started his visual arts collecting about 15 years ago at the first of the two hugely-successful ACT UP art auctions and he hasn't stopped since. An active member of the direct action group, he also proudly contributed a photograph to the second benefit, and justified the relative extravagance of his purchase of the work of others by the good purpose to which his dollars would be put. Outside of the merits of the works themselves, many of his subsequent acquisitions, now decisions made together with his partner Barry Hoggard, have also had the additional excuse of assisting good people and institutions.

He tries to make an excursion to groups of galleries several times a month, but as the apartment fills up and the choices become more and more difficult, if not more expensive, the collecting seems to have slowed down. In fact, since he now maintains his own surprisingly popular three-year-old weblog magazine largely devoted to the visual arts and very dependent upon images, physical possession no longer seems to be the point. He finds more excitement in being able to broadcast an exciting find than in securing its possession. To that end he's never without his tiny digital camera.

Neither a working artist nor a critic, he is not selling anything, and he can buy very little. Because of and in spite of his frequent appearances in its environments he is finally of the industry and "not in the industry," as a gallerist friend explained it to someone recently. This is his first invitation to assume the role of curator and the responsibility has been humbling.

He takes pictures, some of which please him.

When he is not absorbed in the arts, Leftist political activism accompanies him through an imperfect world. In the words of artist and activist friend Scott Treleaven, he is one of the "older queer delinquents who thought that ACT UP and Queer Nation, et al., didn't run far, fast or deep enough."

He has lived with HIV disease for at least 25 years. While it has changed his life, much of it for the better, it hasn't killed him. He remains disgustingly healthy. He's now pretty sure he will probably die of old age.

 

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