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Shadows and Light

Traveling Exhibit Illuminates the Work of HIV+ Artists

Slide Show: Mich'l Hampton, co-coordinator of Visual AIDS' Lightbox, gets up close and personal with the work of 250 artists.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 6/13/2001

Lightbox: A Traveling Exhibition

Various Artists

Fleckenstein Gallery & Archival Framing June 16 through 30

At most art openings, attendees mill around a gallery, chattering as they look at the work hanging on the walls or standing on the floor. When Lightbox: A Traveling Exhibition, a show of art by HIV+ artists, opened at the University of Delaware earlier this month, visitors stood quietly around a collection of light boxes, magnifying glasses in hand, gazing intently at slides displayed on the boxes' illuminated surfaces. Rather than the usual din at an opening, photographer J.D. Talasek says, "the reception was as quiet as a library."

The exhibit can't help but engender a contemplative response, the Ruxton resident says. Talasek, 34, whose work is included in the show, helped coordinate its most recent booking, a two-week stand at the Fleckenstein Gallery in Towson. Slides of the participating artists' work have been archived in an AIDS activist group's New York headquarters, and now the slide-filled light boxes have gone on the road, bringing viewers up close and personal with HIV/AIDS' human cost as the nation observes the 20th anniversary of the disease's first documented cases.

Gallery owner Terrie Fleckenstein says she felt it was important to book this nonprofit art exhibit into her for-profit private gallery because "there is a really big concern about the destruction of artwork once an artist passes away, and we need a visual record for future generations. This project is akin to the AIDS quilt."

The show is unconventional not just in its organizing principle but in the way it's presented--slides of artwork rather than the art itself (although some of the other venues on the tour will supplement the slides with actual works by some of the artists). The 250 artists in this exhibit--represented by two slides each--hail from around the country; two are from the Baltimore area. There is considerable demographic diversity among the participants. Most are still living, but others' work is being handled by their estates. Some of the artists are famous, such as the late Keith Haring, and others are known only to their loved ones.

The exhibit is a spin-off of the Archive Project of Visual AIDS. Founded in 1988 by artists and AIDS activists, Visual AIDS is best known for two other projects, Day Without Art and the Ribbon Project; the former is an annual day of events that emphasize the toll the disease has taken on the arts community and the latter has for the past 10 years made the red ribbon a symbol of AIDS awareness. The organization launched the Archive Project in 1994 "to document work of artists with HIV and AIDS, says Visual AIDS executive director Christopher Hogan.

The project is open to anyone who identifies him- or herself as HIV+ and a professional artist. Each artist has multiple slides archived at the organization's New York office, with Visual AIDS curators and board members selecting which two slides would go out on a tour that began late last year. The show appeared at the University of Delaware prior to its Towson visit and next goes to a private gallery in Seattle.

Hogan says Visual AIDS has also used slides from the project for online art exhibits, and outside curators and researchers have used the archive in putting together their own AIDS-related publications and exhibits.

Talasek says the Archive Project fills both an artistic and a social need. "There's a real urgency to preserve in some way a record of artists' work, to give exposure to artists, and to help them live with HIV," he says.

That work itself is not necessarily AIDS-related. Hogan notes that most of the artists in the archive do not overtly reference the disease in their work; Talasek's photographs of distorted nudes fall into this category. But some of the artists do address AIDS and related issues in their work, including the other Baltimore representative in Lightbox, sculptor Tim Lonergan.

"It's so important for me to deal with AIDS in my art, because it's so difficult to deal with it in my daily life," says Lonergan, 48, who lives in Mount Vernon. His mixed-media sculptures, including a piece he had in an outdoor sculpture exhibit at Evergreen House last year, often incorporate fabric triangles that he says "came from my religious upbringing as a Catholic"--invoking the holy trinity--"and from being a gay man using pink triangles," the now-ubiquitous symbol of identity that was first used by the Nazis to tag homosexuals during the Holocaust and was later appropriated by AIDS activists in the 1980s.

And even though he works in a three-dimensional medium, Lonergan says an exhibit composed of slides is an appropriate way for the artists involved to get exposure; after all, artists routinely use slides to document, advance, and promote their careers. "I have to remind myself that the currency of the art world is the slide," Lonergan says. "That's how we barter. The key is to have great slides."

The documentary aspect remains key to the Archive Project. But, just as the 20-year-long fight against AIDS has distinct chapters in terms of medical and activist response, Hogan says the focus of the archive has changed somewhat in recent years.

"The feeling at the time the archive was founded in 1994 was the documentation and preservation idea," he says. "By 1996, the medical advances made it such that artists who joined the archive had longer life expectancies, so there now is more of a feeling that we also need to facilitate the needs of living artists." Thus the project also provides more day-to-day assistance to artists, such as grants to help them buy supplies and a newsletter with information about career opportunities.

The project's agenda, he notes, extends beyond the aesthetic.

"One of our basic goals is to keep HIV and AIDS in the public eye and mind. In the past few years, perhaps it has dropped some in terms of visibility, especially in the United States," Hogan says. "Certainly, Visual AIDS believes there is an AIDS crisis in Africa, but we also need to keep in mind the many people living in the United States. The [slide] archive is meant to be a visual record of the AIDS pandemic."

Visual AIDS executive director Christopher Hogan will attend the opening reception for Lightbox: A Traveling Exhibition on June 16 from 5-9 p.m. at Fleckenstein Gallery, 29 Allegheny Ave., Towson. For more information, call (410) 296-8588.

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