"Brian Weil: The AIDS Photographs," on display at ASU's Matthews Center, is a nationally touring collection of AIDS-related photographs taken around the world by this internationally shown artist and AIDS activist. Using a small format camera and ultrasensitive film, Weil has produced large, gripping images of friends he's cared for and acquaintances he's met and worked with both in the U.S. and abroad.
The one thing his disparate subjects share in common is AIDS. And it quickly becomes clear from seeing these photos that AIDS is truly an equal-opportunity plague, striking without regard to race, color, creed, gender, age, country of origin or sexual orientation. The graininess of Weil's contrasty black-and-white prints hides the deformities and physical destruction that often accompany the disease in its last stages. Weil's photographs are simultaneously eye-opening and aesthetically arresting. These are emotionally charged images, with none of the cold exploitation found in Diane Arbus' work or the gory sensationalism of Weegee (Arthur Fellig), famous for the photos he took while on New York City's night-shift police beat. Weil is as sensitive to the pain and suffering of his subjects as his high-speed film is to the waning light in which he is sometimes forced to shoot. Wall texts written by the photographer give historical and informational context to the images, heightening their tragic impact. "Brian Weil has told me this is a very depressing show for him on many different levels, since all of the people shown in the photographs have died since he photographed them," says Heather Lineberry, the ASU museum curator responsible for the show.
According to Lineberry, the Weil exhibition is first and foremost an educational exhibit. "We've had a very positive response to the show, with no irate calls or crazies showing up to protest," she says. Lineberry believes the museum had a social responsibility to schedule the show, which was organized by Photographers and Friends United Against AIDS, with support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and local funding from Stephane Janssen in memory of R. Michael Johns. "As an art museum of a university that has one of the largest student populations in the United States, we have a responsibility to educate our students about this disease," she says. "There are many precedents in art history for utilizing art as an educational vehicle. Goya and Hieronymous Bosch made art about pestilence and its destructiveness. More and more, art museums are going to have to address important social issues."
Brian Weil began his AIDS project in 1985, when he began volunteering at the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City. It was through that organization that the photographer first met and worked with 38-year-old Maria, an HIV-positive graduate student who requested Weil to photograph her 2-year-old, AIDS-infected daughter, Flavia. Weil's involvement with a clean-needle exchange program for IV drug users in New York yielded more subjects. Weil moved on to explore the AIDS crisis in other countries, especially those Third World countries afflicted with high rates of the disease. What Weil captured on film during his travels is the manner in which cultural customs, mores and political systems--such as apartheid--directly contribute to the propagation of a disease that could ultimately destroy a large portion of the world's population.
The photographer captured ineffectual voodoo rites used to "cure" AIDS patients in Haiti; he documented the spread of the disease in Zimbabwe through cuts made with infected razors into which traditional spirit healers rub herbal compounds. In South Africa, Weil followed the plight of indentured gold miners far from home, who pass the disease to their wives from prostitutes or homosexual affairs. While in Thailand, he discovered the flesh-peddling go-go bars of Bangkok and child prostitutes of both sexes, exploited by their own countrymen, as well as foreigners on "sex holidays" from Australia, Japan, Germany and the U.S. And he recorded transvestite sex workers employed by the government in the Dominican Republic teaching others how to hide a condom in the mouth and secretly slip it onto a client's penis. His work brings home the sheer monumentality of the AIDS problem.
In stark contrast to the Weil exhibit, Alwun House's 11th Annual "Exotic (read Erotic) Art Show" borders on the marginally amusing. I use the term "borders on" advisedly, since the work in this exhibition is pretty wan, resembling stuff left over from some past Renaissance Faire.
Apparently, in order to be a part of this invitational, you had to a) produce art that looked like it was made during the late Sixties or early Seventies, and b) include your choice of any sexual organ or body part associated with sexual conduct and/or function, which Alwun's artists are seemingly required to equate with eroticism. Not surprisingly, there is a bounty of alternative sexuality material in this show, which would be okay if it were executed more creatively. But it isn't. Let's face it--it's almost impossible to compete with those TV talk shows, like the Geraldo Rivera show aired the day of the Alwun House opening, "Star-crossed Cross-dressers and the Men/Women Who Love Them." And although there are plenty of nudes and various erogenous zones on display, there is very little here that entices or titillates. Even the work that does not fit into any of the above criteria seems to be mere pale imitations of work by other artists.
For example, "They Often Dressed Like Foreigners to Make It Better" by Karl Dowhie is a takeoff on 19th-century Japanese shunga, erotic woodblocks once used by the Japanese as sex manuals. Unfortunately for Dowhie, Masami Teraoka did this sort of visual parody back in the late Seventies and did it better. Robert Schlechty's "Alice and the Looking Glass" looks more than vaguely like something by Roberto Marquez.
And some work, like "Bobbitt's Feast"--a clay penis on a platter with a knife and fork sticking out of it--by the pseudonymous Ima Von DeTwatt is, pardon the pun, just in very bad taste.
Only three pieces in the entire show seemed to hit the mark: a crayon drawing titled "Mi vida poca (My Little Life)" by Rafael Gutierrez; "Membre Erotic Art Plates" by Jo Taulbee, funky, X-rated takeoffs on prehistoric Mimbres pottery; and Keith Gossiaux's series of photographic images sandwiched against academic texts on child sexuality development. The opening for the Exotic Show, featuring "Master of Improvisation" Theodore Christ and "Mistress of Mischeif" [sic] Felicia Fahr, was just about as banal as this show. Leading a group of naked actors, Christ, himself nude, wasted 30 interminable minutes spouting bad, allegedly rhyming verse to a crowd described by a friend of mine as either "yuppies gone bad or bikers turned good." It looked as if these guys were heading to Woodstock and took a wrong turn in Phoenix; dope smoke hanging in the air and Nehru jackets were the only things missing from this nostalgic scenario. While Alwun House should be commended for providing alternative gallery space for artists, it's time for the boys and girls there to leave Neverland--time to grow up and move on. Stuff like the perennial "Exotic Art Show" is showing its age, in more ways than one.