“Mixed Messages”

La MaMa Galleria
47 Great Jones Street
June 2, 2011–July 3, 2011

Jayson Keeling, New Graffiti, Old Revolutions, 2010, color photograph, 30 x 40”.

On the eve of Gay Pride––and the marketing emporium it has become––the quips and anthems assembled by curator John Chaich in this exhibition co-organized with Visual AIDS conjure up a different moment in the history of queer sloganeering. Veering from the angry to the elegiac, the messages here are as mixed as their vehicles. All of the works, however, attest to an effort to give voice to the AIDS crisis, from its emergence in the early 1980s to the present day. That more than half of the objects date from the end of the last decade, in fact, confirms the enduring, if increasingly undetectable, devastation of the pandemic.

NEW GRAFFITI OLD REVOLUTIONS, reads a faded C-print by Jayson Keeling from just last year. Nearby, a 1989 silk screen by Felix Gonzalez-Torres confirms this sentiment, linking––with the simple apposition of neat typeset words––the founding of the People with AIDS Coalition in 1985 to other civil rights actions, such as the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, which is alluded to by the date of 1891. Of course, much of the show underscores the obverse: a marshaling of “old graffiti” via strategies gleaned from Dada and the “heroic” avant-gardes to voice a newer struggle. Lithographs and collages, photostats and silk screens all testify to further intersections between 1980s agitprop and the art world.

Striking a wry, bittersweet note, Deborah Kass’s 2007 gouache Make Me Feel evokes the lyrics of disco legend Sylvester James, who died of AIDS in 1988. One of Sylvester’s last singles featured work by Keith Haring, another casualty of the disease, like his East Village contemporary David Wojnarowicz. The latter’s Untitled (One Day This Kid . . . ), 1990, sprawls across the wall, an effigy that is sweet and mordant in equal measure (and also seems like a site-specific installation, hanging so near to his old East Village haunts). Along with Wojnarowicz, a few other luminaries shine, from Yoko Ono to Jack Pierson to Glenn Ligon, with his 2006 black-light installation One Live and Die. But it is the variety of work here that truly captures––in both affect and relative anonymity––something of the disease’s insidious reach.

Ara H. Merjian