“Without,” curated by David Cannon Dashiell and Peter Edlund (originally for The LAB in San Francisco in conjunction with A Day Without Art) managed to integrate several different approaches to privation, absence, and loss into one remarkably coherent meditation. What is more remarkable is that “Without” also managed to avoid being ponderous or maudlin. In fact, the works collected here might usefully be categorized using the medieval terms for representations of death: memento mori, danse macabre, vanitas vanitatum, ars morendi, and magines mortis.

Comprised of 15 pieces, in all media, by 15 different artists, the show emphasized the correspondences among these diverse works. Acting as memento mori were Lucy Puls’ Matrona cum Umbraculum, 1991, a cubed matron in shaded, shattered lucite (novelist Kevin Killian wrote in his exhibition essay that it attained the “nobility of repair”); Nayland Blake’s perversely meticulous rows of a month’s worth of daily apple cores preserved in vodka; and Kevin Radley’s freestanding memorial column, covered from base to capital with counting marks and inscribed with the plea “HowManyMoreTimes.” The danse macabre appeared in clinical photographs of a pile of amputated feet and legs (A Morning’s Work, 1865, by Dr. Reed B. Bontecou); a head served on a soup plate like a roast (Dr. Howard Brundage); and in the clinically inspired work by J. John Priola, Dangerous Pleasures, 1992, that pictures a severed penis (a sort of members’ portrait).

The curators’ inclusion of Therese Frare’s moment-of-death photograph of a PWA, widely distributed as a Benetton ad, was criticized by many, but it was entirely in keeping with the conceptual design of the show. Appropriately placed with the other macabre images, it effectively marked one extremity in the representation of loss: even one’s death, the ultimate personal loss, can be commodified—this obscene example of “corporate concern” was labeled simply “Marketing Photograph.” In contrast, Nan Goldin’s haunting picture of Cookie Mueller before her husband Vittorio’s casket, and David Wojnarowicz’s death-mask self-portrait of himself buried alive in Death Valley operate more in the realm of ars morendi: instructions by initiates in the art of death.

Hybrid: Metamorphose, 1992, Rene de Guzman’s compelling corpuscular panel of Plexiglas filled with human and animal blood, segmented and accessed through 16 “nipples,” and Lock, n.d., Elliot Linwood’s low pyramid of human hair, can both be taken as still lifes on the subject of mortality. Both are either attractive or repellant depending on which memories are activated. Linwood’s Lock triggers dread that is partly historical (death camps, executions) and partly biological (hair and nails are the “undead” body parts we regularly “lose”). Julie Ault’s camp/poignant still life, Home Is in His Arms, 1990, consisting of a pair of glass slippers illumined by one red night-light, was part vanitas vanitatum, part imagines mortis.

Trying to visualize and articulate loss (that elevated slave of romance) is a tricky business indeed. Not all of the pieces in this show worked, but the overall effect was strong: strength in diversity (heroic and campy, elegiac and defiant) and grace under pressure. The most surprising thing it did was to make loss active.

David Levi Strauss