presents
Picturing Identity

An Exhibition
curated by

Michael A. Gonzalez
Stony Brook, NY

Michael A Gonzalez
Photo by Philip Calkins

My focus in this exhibition is an analysis of the space created by these artists, specifically how that space has changed between the time before the introduction of the drug therapy known as the "cocktail" and the period following its introduction -- a pre- and post-cocktail comparison. I have focused on photography-based works and have loosely arranged the images according to a "pre- and post-cocktail" date of 1995. Most of these works are self-portraits; however, I have included some collaborative works that expand the traditional genre of self-portraiture while retaining its basic ideas.

I begin the exhibition with a comparison of the space in two portraits, one by David Wojnarowicz, posthumously dated 1993, and the other by John Dugdale, dated 1998. Although Wojnarowicz found great solace in nature, his image can be read as metaphorically and literally defining a space in which the immediacy of death is emphasized. Gradually covered with the rocky soil, Wojnarowicz's face, eyes closed, is seen moments before complete submersion into the earth. There is precious little time or space in Wojnarowicz's photograph to deliver his message. Soon death will equal silence.

In this shallow space and limited time in which survival was threatened, an identity of resistance developed. Wojnarowicz used the space as a political platform from which he delivered an activist message that was and still is so important in the fight against AIDS. Wojnarowicz's second image in the exhibition, a still taken from a video, reflects his use of the space as a political platform. With his mouth stitched shut, he personifies the slogan, Silence = Death, epitomizing the activist aesthetic when the struggle was quite literally a matter of life and death.

Prior to the introduction of the "cocktail" the realm between life and death heavily leaned toward the latter. This changed with the introduction of the combination drug therapy in 1995. The threat of death is not as immediate in the post-cocktail period; nevertheless, it poses a very real possibility to those individuals who are required to follow a strict drug regimen. In John Dugdale's self-portrait, titled Life's Evening Hour, he emphasizes the space in which AIDS has situated him and in which many people find themselves today.

Although the image of the photographer is that of a handsome, completely healthy young man, Dugdale suffered from AIDS-related complications that left him blind in the right eye and with only 20% visibility in his left eye. (The black eye in his second portrait in this exhibition resulted from walking into a door that he was unable to see.) His apparent lack of interest in the outside world in this photograph is actually reflective of an acute self-awareness resulting from a vision turned inward towards his own mortality. By photographing himself in front of the tombstone, Dugdale occupies a space in which death moves from the forefront, as seen in Wojnarowicz's work, to the background. With the threat of death less immediate, there is an expansion of a psychological space that allows for the contemplation of identity by the artist in the post-cocktail period. Life takes center stage and the political platform becomes secondary. Survival replaces resistance.

Boundaries between stage and platform, however, have rarely been absolutely fixed -- pre- or post-cocktail. The pre-cocktail self-portraits by John Davis are a good example. Davis' work, with the dramatic contrast in lighting and the highly posed positions, is some of the most emotionally charged images in the exhibition. In the late stages of AIDS-related diseases and shortly before his death, Davis' physical existence must have been one of great discomfort, having some good days but more likely bad; and yet his face reveals a sense of tranquility, perhaps even a happiness, as he looks out directly at the viewer. As if fallen in battle, in the other portrait he references the pose of the Greek sculpture of the Dying Gallic Trumpeter. Twisting in the agony of death, the Hellenistic beautiful body is replaced by his own, thereby heroically refusing to succumb to the stigma of the illness. Are Davis' works personal with a political edge or are they political with a personal edge? By making the wasting of the personal body public, it certainly becomes political in revealing the devastating effect that the disease was having on people with AIDS.

In the two self-portraits by Albert Winn, the space moves from public to personal but in each case remains political. The photograph, taken in 1992, reads like a safe sex poster with two nude men embracing in the hot tub and with the sign high above Winn's left shoulder reading: "Just a loving reminder/ Please no explicit/ sexual activity/ in this area./ Thank you." In the second image, dated 1997, we are invited into a private space in which his multiple self-identifications are explored in relation to each other by collapsing a private religious ritual with the ritual of taking the "cocktail," which he holds in his hand. In the center of the space above the table, there is a poster from The Jewish Welfare Board with a soldier striding forward making the plea: "CIVILIANS/ when we go/ through this/ we need all/ the help and comfort/ you can give." Of course the message can be read on different levels. In this photograph, boundaries between the private, public and political spaces collapse.

The works in this exhibition evoke a breadth of emotions -- some touch, some caress and others pierce our psyche. Each of the works brings us closer to the artist if only for a moment and hopefully closer to humanity for a lifetime. The artists in this exhibition deserve so much more attention than I was able to provide in this statement. It is a great pleasure to share the moment with these artists, and Visual AIDS is to be commended for its efforts in preserving the works of these artists.

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Michael A. Gonzalez is currently teaching Art History, including the History of Photography, at the State University of New York-Stony Brook, where he is also completing a Ph.D.

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