"It started at 5 m.p.h., and now we're past the speed limit. We're just jammin'!" exults Mirella Moses, curator of a show of AIDS-related art at a storefront space in the Marketplace of Irvine. Once you get her started about the project--done on a dime, with donated space, labor, paint and lighting--she barely pauses for breath.
"The First Exhibition," which remains in Space B-163 through June 13, is part of "Art for Life's Sake," a constellation of art, fashion and food events in Irvine and Santa Ana. The events, organized by Mark Smith, whose brother died of AIDS-related causes two years ago, are designed to focus community attention on the AIDS pandemic.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 7, 1993 Orange County Edition Calendar Part F Page 23 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
HIV Status--Mark Smith, organizer of the "Art for Life's Sake" AIDS awareness events, has a brother who has been diagnosed as HIV-positive. His condition was reported incorrectly Thursday in OC Live!
Moses selected the 28 artists--some of whom haven't shown anywhere before, a few of whom are virtual recluses--mostly through word-of-mouth. Trying to be as inclusive as possible, she made a special effort to represent a wide range of contemporary media (including book art and installation) as well as different moods and points of view, straights and gays, healthy people and those with the AIDS virus.
There was also another criterion: "I wanted all the artists to feel passionate about putting the show together," she says. If she suspected that an artist was just looking for another item to beef up a resume, she turned that person down.
Moses, a 33-year-old native of Berlin who has lived in Orange County since 1981, wasn't shy about including in the show one of her own mixed-media pieces, "Busy" (an expanse of rumpled bed sheets with a telltale stain left by lovers who didn't use a condom), as well as a collaboration with Smith. All but one of the labels identifying the work in the show include a photograph of the artist--as well as a brief statement--because Moses felt it was important that the public be able to connect the work with the person who made it.
She also insisted that each artist serve as a gallery attendant--a rather vulnerable position for someone unused to public exposure, since the photographs will make it possible for viewers to connect each sitter with his or her work.
"In a way, (the artists) are standing there with no pants on," Moses says breezily. "But who knows, it might trigger something else in their work" that they wouldn't have thought of before discussing it with a stranger.
To be sure, the art on view has nothing in common with the ironic and mordantly witty AIDS-related works that have been displayed at museums and major Los Angeles galleries for the past few years. The artists in this show mostly wear their emotions on their sleeves.
There's an overriding tendency to go for the big, obvious gut reaction--a tactic that almost inevitably bogs down in cliche and mawkishness. Too many works rely on beat-'em-over-the-head preaching rather than explorations that permit viewers to come to their own conclusions. Imagery veers off into triteness (a little person climbs a ladder held by a giant hand; a suffering figure holds his head in his hands).
By far the best work is an installation with strong cultural roots: "Coffins" by William Benson of Santa Ana. As he explains in his statement, AIDS is known as the "slim disease" in Africa because it wastes the body.
Benson's 17 carved and brightly painted open coffins (16 of which are upended and clustered together like so many totemic sculptures) each hold a mere wisp of a "body"--a bundle of burlap, a bunch of thin sticks or a length of rope "dressed" in colorful raffia skirts. Some of the bodies are held in nooselike arrangements of rope, killed by a disease as coldly and dispassionately cruel as an executioner. The skimpy "remains" are garnished with survivors' tokens of respect: necklaces, a vividly dyed shoelace, a cuff of beaded material. Massed together, these ghostly figures have a powerful presence, as if unseen shamens have conjured the souls of the dead.
Among the curiosities on view are paintings by Archie Mays, a doctor active in health care reform, and a man who goes by the name Gardan.
Mays' painting, "Luck and the Cycle of Humanity," represents portions of AIDS' decade-long history with a series of interconnected geographic and medical signs and symbols, including the African continent (where the earliest AIDS cases--most of them in heterosexuals-- were documented), a huge gloved hand holding a syringe topped with the Eiffel Tower (French doctors are believed to have first isolated the AIDS virus), huge red blood platelets tossing in the sky like so many Frisbees and a flying convoy of antibodies that metamorphose into sea gulls.
Gardan's paean to masturbation, "Safe Sex," has the look of a paint-by-numbers canvas based on some obscure cartoon character. A skipping, jesterlike figure in a hooded garment airily scatters a cloud of sperm as if it were so much, uh, fairy dust. While some hip contemporary artist might have intended a piece like this as a campy parody with a bitter edge, Gardan's work has the innocently straightforward intent of a thrift store painting.