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'Art AIDS America' and 'Eggs Benedict'

Mar. 14, 2017
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"There Never Was a Woman of My Dreams," 2004. Courtesy of artist John Arsenault

It isn’t often one gets to go on a good old-fashioned bus excursion. I recently did. Unlike my high school trips venturing into New York City to see a Broadway show, this one had a more sobering mission. Along with several dozen Milwaukee Art Museum members, fellow docents, AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin (ARCW) staff and the tour’s sponsor, Joe Pabst, we went to Chicago’s Alphawood Gallery to view “Art AIDS America.” The exhibit of 170 works chronicles the critical response by 100 artists to the AIDS pandemic from its earliest moments in the 1980s. We were fortunate to be guided through the display by the exhibit’s co-curator, Jonathan Katz.

Not included in the show was Niki Johnson’s infamous condom portrait, Eggs Benedict. Donated by Pabst, it’s now in a MAM storage bin. I’ve heard varied reasons for not having it on permanent display. There’s the obligatory critical assessment of the artistic merit and the loftily tutted question, “Is it art?” of course. But, given the museum’s extensive holdings of outsider art, that certainly couldn’t be the case. Did a piously Catholic donor with a Rembrandt threaten to cut MAM out of his will? Was an ecclesiastic edict in the offing, condemning the heresy? 

Papal Bull notwithstanding, the issue of conservation inevitably comes up. Latex isn’t forever, it seems, and the frame encasing the piece is not hermetically sealed. Inevitably, those once-supple condoms would stiffen, dry out and degrade. Presumably, the papal image would eventually turn into a crusty and shriveled blur. I’m not sure if this is the artist’s intent. But, after living through the AIDS crisis and now having seen “Art AIDS America,” that transmutation would itself be powerfully symbolic, reflecting both the dying AIDS victim and the calcifying compassion of the church. Raised Catholic and as a former seminarian, I would certainly get the message. 

Years ago, an artist installed a conceptual work at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center. The medium was collected, small, white flower petals. Applied directly onto a 20-inch-wide section of wall abutting a corner, the artist created a pattern reminiscent of Victorian wallpaper, painstakingly gluing each individual petal in place from floor to ceiling. The installation remained for years. The surrounding wall area was repainted from time to time, but the pattern of petals remained.

At first it slowly turned yellowish, then brown. Petals fell off. But this was the artist’s intent. It was the purpose of the art to reveal the passage of time, jar memories and visually depict the inevitability of decay. Even when a pair of volunteers, in Taliban manner, expressed their disregard for the message and took a vacuum cleaner to the wall, destroying most of the remaining design, that, too was part of the process. All art is transitory, often intentionally destroyed by the ignorance of man.

MAM dedicates a small gallery to AIDS-related art. Perhaps Eggs Benedict is too politically charged for that space, but other exhibition areas have limited access. Signs might warn: “Attention! Viewing the artwork beyond could cause emotional discomfort and may elicit social consciousness.” Meanwhile, “Art AIDS America” remains on view for just a few more weeks. This rare assembly of works should not be missed.


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