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'Promise' Made to Respect, Remember

Art: 'Community Responds' in Brea is intended to personalize AIDS and evoke compassion for people who live--or die--with it.


BREA — City-funded galleries, as a rule, shy away from exhibitions that could generate controversy among the taxpayers. So it may come as a surprise that the City of Brea Gallery has taken AIDS as the theme for an exhibit that opens Saturday night with an artists' reception.

"I think this is a daring show for this community to do," agreed gallery director and curator Georgia Freedman-Harvey. "And the community has been really supportive of it."

Freedman-Harvey said she is not expecting negative reactions to the show, "A Promise to Remember: A Community Responds to AIDS," because the idea is not to shock patrons but to evoke feelings of compassion for people living with HIV or AIDS and for those who have died from it.

"It's about the dignity of human beings and remembering them as individuals," she said. "Remember them as the wife, the mother, the son, the daughter."

"It's not a [Robert] Mapplethorpe show," noted artist Karen Atkinson, referring to the late photographer whose homoerotic images have been criticized by numerous religious leaders and politicians. "You'd have to be ultra-sensitive to be offended by this show."

Atkinson, who lives in Santa Monica, said she's not surprised that the show is being mounted in an affluent and basically conservative community. "I think there are smart people everywhere," she said. "Where you live doesn't mean you don't think about this stuff. I know there are people in Brea with AIDS. It just might not be as many."

Along with Atkinson, Kim Abeles, Cathy Pavia and Liz Young are artists in the show whose works pay tribute to colleagues who have died of AIDS. Works also will be shown by four artists who have succumbed to the disease: Mark Niblock-Smith, Tony Greene, Donald Sorenson and Michael Prouty; and by a photographer, Albert J. Winn, who continues to work while living with AIDS.

One of Atkinson's two pieces in the exhibit, "For the Time Being . . . ," is a converted parking meter that plays audiotapes relating to the AIDS epidemic. It was created as a public art project through a grant from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. Plug a quarter into the meter--one of several Atkinson created--and one will hear poems and stories recorded by artists and writers and their friends and family members.

"I am really interested in letting them speak for themselves," said Atkinson. Money collected in Atkinson's meters, which have been placed at such diverse locations as the West Hollywood City Hall and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, is donated to a fund supporting artists with AIDS.

Atkinson's other work, "Fenestrae Reliquin [In Memory]," is an arrangement of brightly colored handkerchiefs suspended next to a gallery window. Handkerchiefs often are associated with grief, Atkinson noted, but in this setting they take on an ethereal quality and can be seen as ascending spirits.

Niblock-Smith's "Silent Tear," on loan to Brea from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is an unlit chandelier that spills down to the floor like a waterfall. Other works in the show by Niblock-Smith, who died in 1993 at age 35, include "Lost and Found," inspired by the loss of his hair during chemotherapy, and "Science Fair," a comment on medical research gone wrong.

The only overtly sexual object in the show is Niblock-Smith's "Noble Friend," a leather-covered phallus constrained by a studded collar and chain. But even this piece is far more playful than erotic.

"His work is very humorous and very serious at the same time," said Roger Workman, the late artist's partner. "It's about what it's like to be a person in society who has been demeaned and now has a disease that is demeaned."

That perception of HIV and AIDS patients as undesirables is one that Freedman-Harvey hopes to diminish with this show. "We're trying to say, 'Don't shut me out; don't make me a pariah.' Don't make them invisible. Promise that you're going to remember them. The human spirit and the human condition have to come first."

* "A Promise to Remember: A Community Responds to AIDS" opens Saturday with an artists' reception from 7 to 9 p.m. at the City of Brea Gallery, 1 Civic Center Circle, where the exhibit continues through Aug. 9. (On view during the same period: "Jazz: William Claxton," a collection of black-and-white photographs that chronicles the jazz scene from 1955 to 1975.) Admission to the reception is free. Exhibit admission: $1 for adults, free for those 17 and younger. The gallery is open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and from noon to 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. (714) 990-7730.

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