Since 1989, art galleries and museums have taken note of the toll that HIV has taken on artists and their communities. While a number of HIV+ artists are well known, such as photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Herb Ritts and painter Keith Haring, the disease still affects the art world today. Profiled below are three artists whose work is making a significant impact in the art world today.
Photographer John Dugdale produces fragile, beautiful cyanotypes and calotypes that often feature LGBTQ themes (even the flowers – really!).Born in 1960, Dugdale studied photography at New York’s School of the Visual Arts. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1982 and lived with the disease mostly in check until 1993, when he suffered two strokes that took almost all of his eyesight and kept him hospitalized for seven months. He was left with partial peripheral vision in one eye and uses a magnifying glass to view his work. Before, he’d been working as a commercial photographer whose work was in high demand. After his stroke, he moved to upstate New York, where he still lives, and began experimenting with large-format, 19th century cameras and photographic techniques. His works are deeply personal, often using family members and friends as subjects, and inspired by artists such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Julia Margaret Cameron.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres was a conceptual artist who used prepackaged objects to reveal quiet human truths. He was born in Cuba in 1957 and came to the US from Puerto Rico in the 1970s to study art at Pratt Institute but did not graduate. Instead, he opted to continue his studies at the Whitney Program and NYU’s photography program, earning his MFA in 1987. His candy spill and light string sculpture arrangements are among his most famous, both responding to his ideas regarding death, particularly after the loss of his lover, Ross Laycock, in 1991 to HIV. Laycock, a freelance writer and sommelier, inspired a number of his works, and when he died Torres was bereft. He considered Ross “his public” and dedicated a number of works to him throughout his career. Despite his loss, many critics find Gonzalez-Torres’ art hopeful – the more his candy piles disappear, the more the threat of death disappears and the notion that life continues. When the lights in his sculptural works flicker out, they may or may not be replaced depending on the work of art in question. Viewers are often asked to participate in his works, either by taking pieces of them as in the candy spill pieces, or removing parts of paper-based works. Torres died in 1996, also of HIV. His work is in a number of major collections, including the Museum of Modern Art New York, the Guggenheim Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Kia LaBeija is a HIV positive artist born with HIV. A New York native, she was born Kia Benbow in 1990 to an HIV positive mother and diagnosed at the age of 4. Her work, which focuses on self-portraiture, is part of an extensive exploration of self and her life as a queer artist of color. She is also attached to the House of LaBeija (part of the ball culture captured in the iconic film Paris is Burning and celebrated by Madonna’s “Vogue”) and views voguing as a potent form of self expression. Her photographic work is deeply autobiographical, detailing her coping with the death of her mother when she was 14, her life as a queer ciswoman artist of color and her multimodal responses to art. Her work has been shown at the Brooklyn Museum, the Studio Museum (Harlem) and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
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