On the news, disasters come and go. In real life, the people affected by them are still suffering after the cameras leave. The hyper-focus of the 24-hour news cycle moves from tragedy to tragedy, in love-'em-and-leave-'em fashion unless some news hook, usually an anniversary, calls them back. We know that this is what happens, but it doesn't keep us from forgetting about things ourselves — unless, of course, we happen to be affected.
But art can offer a way for people to remember and engage with issues that are relevant but no longer front-page. How many of us would know anything about the atrocities of the Peninsular War in the early 19th century without Goya's famous print series the Disasters of War? And, sadly, those brutal images are still relevant to conflicts today. Two Houston shows, Richard Misrach: After Katrina at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and BECAUSE WE ARE at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, offer work that addresses once-hot topic issues such as Hurricane Katrina and AIDS in a profound and moving way.
The five-year anniversary of Katrina briefly brought the catastrophe and its victims back onto the front page. (Other gulf coast residents, not so much. We'll see if Rita's five-year gets any play, and no doubt Ike will have to wait its turn.) The MFAH's exhibition of Richard Misrach photographs was timed to the anniversary, but the unpopulated images capture and convey the Katrina tragedy in the words of its survivors and will continue to speak long after media attention has again faded.
Armed with a dinky 4 megapixel camera, Misrach photographed the official and unofficial graffiti spray-painted over New Orleans's devastated homes in Katrina's aftermath — the search and rescue notations, personal messages, expletives, quips and exclamations of its residents and evacuees. What emerges is a portrait of people overwhelmed by tragedy and sometimes managing to fight back with dark humor.
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The poster image for the series is a shot of a red brick ranch-style house with the words "Destroy this memory" scrawled across it. Notes designating checked houses and the dead bodies or animals within — in rescuers' spray-painted orange — are ubiquitous. Despair — "HELP" — is written bluntly across roofs. Others declare, "I AM ALIVE" and add a cell phone number. The worst are the questions. "MICHAEL, WHERE ARE YOU?" is written on a house above a contact number. People are told to "SEEK GOD." Anger so raw it can't be articulated manifests itself in "FUCK" written repeatedly in block letters across the bricks of a destroyed home. Insurance companies are railed against. "I died here waiting for an adjuster." A threat/declaration is crazily painted across a boarded-up storefront. "DON'T TRY. I AM SLEEPING WITH AN BIG DOG, AN UGLY WOMAN, TWO SHOTGUNS AND A CLAW HAMMER."
"YEP, BROWNIE, YOU DID A HECK OF A JOB" is caustically printed on the side of a garage. Humor, the ultimate coping mechanism, is in full view. A house lifted up off its foundation and set down has a piece of black fabric protruding from under it and "WICKED WITCH" written with an arrow pointing down. A blue stucco house with a seven-foot water line bears the note "T&E — WE LOVE WHAT YOU'VE DONE WITH THE PLACE."
Misrach's series is especially compelling because he gives Katrina's victims a voice, one that is as complex as they are, and one that will continue to resonate.
In the sprawling group show "BECAUSE WE ARE," Eric Avery and Daniel Goldstein offer testaments to the ongoing pandemic that is AIDS. AIDS coverage peaked in the early '90s, but as antiretrovirals made survival possible (for those who could afford them), the crisis dimmed in the media and in popular consciousness. But AIDS awareness is still an important issue with 33.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS in 2008. And the medicines that make surviving HIV possible have side effects that can make daily life a challenge.
Eric Avery is an artist and a psychiatrist working with AIDS patients in the Houston area. Psychiatric disorders can contribute to the likelihood of HIV infection and make following treatments difficult. Avery creates portraits of his patients with a stark expressionism to them. The artist carves woodcuts that he molds paper over, creating low relief cast paper works with a monumental feeling. He also uses his printmaking to inform and advocate. He turned one of the Station's bathrooms into an installation, papering the walls with black-and-white prints diagramming how to use a male and a female condom. Avery's work extends to the bathroom's toilet seat, into which he sandblasted raised letters that spell "Abandon all hope ye who enter here" — in reverse. When a bare bottom sits upon the seat, the letters temporarily mark the sitter's flesh. Avery includes male and female bare-ass photos to illustrate the effect. It's like a sexual warning label.
Daniel Goldstein is an HIV-positive artist who has survived friends and partners who succumbed to AIDS. Goldstein collected more than 300 empty HIV medication bottles from HIV-positive people in his life, the living and the dead, and used them to construct Medicine Man 2 (2010). Hanging from the ceiling, the sculpture is a body-shaped form created by clustering and dangling the drug containers. The red-tipped syringes are aimed at and surround the figure, creating a radiant aura. It's a record of the struggle to survive disease and its side effects.
The labels of the bottles bear the names of the patients; we wonder whom their contents helped and whom they couldn't save. The virus takes a broad-spectrum toll; the bottles contained medications to treat HIV as well as bacterial infections, herpes infections, and depression and anxiety. Glancing at some of the side-effect warnings, you imagine the impact they have on quality of life.
These artists address real and important issues in a way that is multidimensional and far more nuanced that any news coverage can be. News is short but art is long.
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