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Visibility: Art AIDS America exhibit converts Chicago bank into gallery
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

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Beginning in June 1981, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control ( CDC ) began to gather reports of "19 cases of biopsy-confirmed Kaposi's sarcoma ( KS ) and/or Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia ( PCP ) among previously healthy homosexual male residents of Los Angeles and Orange counties."

One month later, on July 3, the CDC noted in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that "During the past 30 months, Kaposi's sarcoma ( KS ), an uncommonly reported malignancy in the United States, has been diagnosed in 26 homosexual men ( 20 in New York City [NYC]; 6 in California ). Skin or mucous membrane lesions, often dark blue to violaceous plaques or nodules, were present in most of the patients on their initial physician visit. However, these lesions were not always present and often were considered benign by the patient and his physician."

That same year, Izhar Patkin—an Israeli-born artist then living in New York—completed a painting he titled "Unveiling of a Modern Chastity."

A bleak landscape, created in hues of yellow, is scattered with three-dimensional, crimson abrasions of varying sizes and shapes. Looking at the work without either the historical context or the story behind it, Patkin's work could be interpreted as the overhead image of an inhospitable alien landscape that is as desolate as it is savage.

In a 2015 interview with Art News, former Chicagoan, gay-rights activist and director of the visual studies doctoral program at the Buffalo campus of the State University of New York Jonathan David Katz called Unveiling of a Modern Chastity "the first [AIDS] work I've encountered."

Whether Katz is indeed correct in his discovery is a deeply regrettable unknown.

Whereas the medical history of HIV/AIDS in the United States, its cultural and political effects and the devastation it unleashed and continues to wreak upon countless souls is heavily documented in over 35 years of figures, statistics, graphs, books, plays and film, an exploration of the disease from within the limitless mind of the visual artist has been difficult to map and, until now, never gathered in a single place.

For that reason, the exhibition Art AIDS America that opened Oct. 3, 2015, at the Tacoma Art Museum ( TAM ) in Washington ( in partnership with the Bronx Museum of the Arts ) and has since been touring the country is historic and so unique that those who experience it may never find an equal in terms of the journey they take through loss, fear, defiance, valiance and hope.

These feelings at the universal core of humanity play into the aim of Art AIDS America.

Alongside the chief curator of the Tacoma Art Museum Rock Hushka, Katz is the co-curator of the exhibition.

In his essay "How AIDS Changes American Art," Katz wrote: "To make of AIDS an active historical protagonist requires understanding that it is in fact ours, a collective trauma with a collective impact. The narrative we aim to tell is thus expansive and therefore revisionist, reframing AIDS as something that happened to them to something that happened to us."

On Dec. 1, 2016—World AIDS Day—Art AIDS America will arrive and culminate in Chicago.

"Art AIDS America is the first exhibition to explore how the AIDS crisis forever changed American art," the Chicago exhibit's website states. "While acknowledging and honoring the enormous anger, loss and grief generated by the epidemic, the exhibition refutes the narrative that AIDS is only a tragic tangent in American art. Instead, Art AIDS America offers a story of resilience and beauty revealed through the visual arts, and of the communities that gathered to bring hope and change in the face of a devastating disease."

The exhibition will not only include Patkin's piece but "more than 100 significant contemporary works in a wide range of media—from oil on canvas and photography to three-dimensional installations and video."

The Alphawood Gallery, which will house Art AIDS America at its 2401 N. Halsted St. address, is the only place in the Midwest where the exhibition can be experienced.

Those who have never heard of the Lincoln Park art gallery can be forgiven.

Before Art AIDS America, it did not exist.

Work is almost complete on transforming the headquarters of the quarter-century-old philanthropic organization the Alphawood Foundation—itself housed in former bank offices—into a two-story space that promises to be as singular as the exhibition that will call it home.

Anthony Hirschel is director of exhibitions at the Alphawood Foundation. He took the role in February, having spent over a decade as the Dana Feitler Director of The Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.

"Jonathan Katz has been a friend of [Alphawood founder] Fred Eychaner for many years," Hirschel told Windy City Times. "So Fred was aware of the project but also of the difficulty that the Tacoma Art Museum was finding in placing the exhibition. I don't think any of us know whether it was scheduling challenges or something else such as institutions being less comfortable with the subject of the show. In any case, it was not going to find a place in Chicago."

Hirschel noted that the spaces which have housed Art AIDS America during its nationwide tour have been off-the-beaten-path. They are The Zuckerman Museum of Art in the Atlanta neighborhood of Kennesaw and the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York.

"There is no question that the subject [of AIDS] could have been addressed in a museum a long time ago but it never was," Hirschel added. "So that suggests something about the reluctance of major institutions to tackle this subject. Here we are in 2016 and it has taken this long to have a major exhibition that focuses on the effect that the epidemic had on the course of American art."

Knowing full well both the historic and cultural significance of the exhibit, Eychaner was determined that Art AIDS America should be brought to Chicago.

"It took some time before the decision was made that the way to present this exhibition was to transform the [Alphawood] building," Hirschel recalled. "The bank remains just as a small sliver along the Fullerton side, but there was an idea that the major central space the bank had vacated could be rented as valuable commercial property. That had not yet happened. As the options were evaluated, we came to the conclusion that the right space [for Art AIDS America] was right here."

Construction on the gallery began shortly after Hirschel arrived.

"A lot of the left-overs from the bank's presence are still in the space," he said. "The vault is still there! We imagined a way that the office could be converted into a museum. The goal was to make the fewest modifications that we could while providing the facilities that would not just make the exhibition look handsome but persuade the lenders [of the art] that we were going to provide an environment where security and climate control met museum standards."

When completed, the Alphawood Gallery will offer more floor space for Art AIDS America than was available at its earlier locations. This has provided Hirschel and Alphawood an opportunity to both enhance the exhibition while addressing some concerns about it.

One such concern was raised by the Tacoma Action Collective who, according to the website Stop Erasing Black People protested against "The erasure of Black voices from Art AIDS America."

"This historical and ongoing erasure of Black people, from the HIV/AIDS narrative is part of larger systems of anti-Black oppression," the organization stated.

In December 2015, The Tacoma News Tribune reported that "about 25 protesters marched inside the [TAM] during last week's ArtsWalk. They lay down in the gallery to symbolize black deaths and posted alternative artwork on the walls."

The protestors were bringing badly needed awareness to the disproportionately high numbers of people in Black communities who have died and are still being infected with HIV/AIDS.

"There were about a hundred artists in the Tacoma exhibition and just a handful were artists of color," Hirschel said. "We have found a considerable number of artists [of color] that will be included in Chicago. From the first, Jonathan and Rock had believed that each city should add work to give the exhibition context. They thought this would be helpful in anchoring the show in the community."

Hirschel credited Chicago-based artist, educator and curator John Neff as being instrumental in discovering works centering upon HIV/AIDS by Chicago artists of color as well as suggesting extra programming to promote them.

In adding these new works, Alphawood Gallery has also had to surmount the challenge that has been synonymous with HIV/AIDS—one that was first illustrated when it was diabolically referred to as the "gay plague."

"The stigma about HIV/AIDS has made it that much harder for artists to openly express their response to the crisis," Hirschel said. "I know of a number of artists whose work one has to think carefully about exhibiting because they were never comfortable revealing their HIV status or their sexuality publically. Now they have passed away, is it okay to talk about it now? We are debating the issue and talking to estates. There are a couple of artists of color whose status was never disclosed while they were alive."

The mother of one of those artists called Hirschel's cell phone during his interview with Windy City Times.

"I want to ensure that including her late son's work in the show is not going to cause offense," Hirschel said, "because he went to considerable lengths to hide his status."

Hirschel and Alphawood have also been faced with building a museum from scratch.

"It was clearly all hands on deck for this project," Hirschel said. "We would have had a lot of work if we'd had an established venue in which to place the exhibition. We are doing all of that plus creating a space, the infrastructure, hiring the service staff—everything. We are also conscious of the fact that we are going to present the exhibition in a corner of the neighborhood people know but not as a cultural destination. So we need to work very hard to make sure they find it."

Fortunately, since the official announcement about the commitment of Alphawood to bring Art AIDS America to Chicago, Hirschel has noted something quite unexpected in the level of interest and support that the Alphawood Gallery has received from the city's cultural, advocacy and government groups.

"Everybody is excited that this is coming," he said. "That is really gratifying. You still need partners to make this work and they have really been coming forward."

Enthusiasm for the exhibition has led to partnerships in particular with "cultural and advocacy organizations that serve LGBTQ citizens and communities of color" who will assist in the creation of a number of outside programs. Alphawood Gallery hopes these events will draw people to the main exhibit "to share their stories and perspectives."

According to Alphawood Gallery, the full schedule of artist talks, performances, panel discussions and other events will be released in the fall.

One particularly intriguing partnership is with the celebrated oral-history preservation organization StoryCorps. According to Alphawood Gallery, "visitors will be encouraged to preserve and share their personal recollections of the AIDS crisis and of friends and loved ones lost to the epidemic."

During the tour of the museum in the final phases of construction, with paintwork and lighting fixtures completing the metamorphosis from bank to art gallery, Hirschel pointed out the intimate area where StoryCorps would be based.

It is in a room on the second floor which surrounds a massive atrium—the epicenter of more than 14,000 square feet of space, all of which will play a role in the Art AIDS America exhibit.

From the creation of an intimate area where people can sit and decompress or let their emotions run free into available boxes of Kleenex, nothing available to Alphawood has been left to waste.

Hirschel even noted the massive door to what used to be the bank's vault. Rather than try to remove it, the door itself is such a mechanical work of art, it has been incorporated into the exhibition.

"We are going to open the vault door and use the vault space to screen an introductory video," Hirschel explained.

After watching the video, visitors will be invited to walk through a bead curtain created by Cuban artist F̩lix Gonz̕lez-Torres spanning the full width of the opening to the atrium.

"He wanted everyone to pass through it so you actually touch a work of art," Hirschel said. "Of course there is the analogy of being in contact with AIDS sufferers."

From there, the exhibits will do the rest of that work.

"There are different threads to the exhibition," Hirschel noted. "One is chronological that includes the [Patkin] abstract painting. At the same time, Jonathan has led the effort to think about the work in four categories: body, spirit, politics and camouflage."

Camouflage might seem an unusual theme, but Hirschel explained that, "In the early years of the AIDS crisis, the prohibition on discussing or dealing with it in any direct way was so severe that many artists had to make work that was not obviously about AIDS. If one knew what to look for, the signs were there. Artists had to make a choice. Were they going to be openly political or were they going to adopt a more subtle strategy?"

The history of the effect of HIV/AIDS on American art is not a narrative with any kind of conclusion. As the work combating the disease advances, so does the work portraying it.

"It felt important to continue the story," Hirschel said. "So the exhibition includes a lot of work by younger artists who were not even born when the crisis first arose."

For both Katz and Hushka, it was vital that the Chicago home of Art AIDS America would see the exhibit reach its fullest potential.

With only a few months to go before it officially opens, it is evident that goal will be achieved with an additional and more essential benefit—one that continues the conversation and keeps the awareness of HIV/AIDS firmly in the public eye despite the bored malaise shown toward the disease by the Attention Deficit Disordered national media.

"I talk to public health professionals who are just beside themselves that a lot of younger people think of this as an easily controlled disease that is no big deal," Hirschel said. "One of the things we hope the exhibition will spur is an intergenerational dialogue where people who lived through the crisis at its height and really understand what a devastating illness this is can help share that knowledge and those experiences with younger people who don't know what it's like to see all of your friends die. We hope this provides a springboard for conversations across the city that bring HIV/AIDS back into focus. This is not over. We have not solved it and we have to press forward."

For more information about Art AIDS America at Alphawood Gallery, visit .

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