Long-Term Survivor Project

Review

Long-Term Survivor Project

By Petra Bibeau June 30, 2015

A photograph of a long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS would not have been in existence just two decades ago. In 2015, thirty could easily be the average age of art viewers in San Francisco, risking that an exhibition on HIV/AIDS survivorship might be understood primarily through a lens of historicism. Long-Term Survivor Project at SF Camerawork attempts to bridge current-day survivorship (after the advent of highly active antiretroviral medication during the mid-1990s) with sociohistorical survivorship during the height of the epidemic.

Addressing such a large topic as AIDS survivorship in a single exhibition consisting of the work of three artists is a challenge in and of itself. What allows Long-Term Survivor Project to exceed the expectations of a historical exhibition is the incorporation of work by Frank Yamrus and Grahame Perry that speaks to the personal and the public faces of people living with HIV/AIDS in a literal manner. Hunter Reynolds’ photo weavings, also relatively new work, address the theme of survivorship from a social and political context.

Hunter Reynolds. Sex and Consequences; 2011; photo-weaving, C-prints, and thread; 48 x 60 in. Courtesy of PPOW Gallery, NYC.

The exhibition begins with a group of framed chromogenic prints by San Francisco–based artist Grahame Perry that depict various antiretroviral pill combinations in arrangements that mimic Op Art when viewed at a distance. Perry's photographs suggest a lifeline that is intermingled in a sort of mysticism based on the selection of pharmaceutical cocktails to maintain quality of life. Arranged in decorative form, the pills of various color and scope visually reference the psychic toll that takes place after years of obsessive, ritualized use and dependence.

Most literal is Perry's Memory of Medicine (2012), an archival pigment print detailing stacked antiretroviral bottles examining the precarious relationship of survival and reliance on medicines that were not available or improperly researched or funded during the earlier years of the crisis. Dichotomy is a regular theme in Perry’s work, allowing hope to reside with mourning.

The majority of Perry’s work in Long-Term Survivor Project is not from his strongest material that deals with survivorship. However, the exhibition does include a single pigment-print panel from Perry’s powerful Every AIDS Obituary (2015) series, in which Perry worked with the GLBT Historical Society to reproduce an index of obituaries as seen in the Bay Area Reporter beginning in 1982.

Though certainly past exhibitions surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic and leading into the culture wars of the early ’90s created the visual conversation for a generation of artists, today we have the ability to experience a visual culture in its aftermath. Frank Yamrus' most recent body of work, A Sense of a Beginning (2014), features stark chromogenic prints of long-term survivors, isolating individual emotion through intimate portraiture. Arguably solemn due to the direct angle of each photograph, A Sense of a Beginning signifies the hope of life after diagnosis that was missing over two decades ago. Like much of Yamrus' portraiture, the psychological aspect is the condition for existence. Beyond an intensity that direct portraiture often attains, A Sense of a Beginning elicits an empowerment of presence that embodies the theme of the exhibition.  A Sense of a Beginning deals with the psychological aspect of survivorship from the past and present, personal and public, while leaving inconclusive space for a viewer to consider.

Grahame Perry. Obsession, 2010; archival pigment print; edition of 25; 20 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist and SF Camerawork.

The selection of six photo weavings by New York–based artist Hunter Reynolds in Long-Term Survivor Project act both as document and impressively intricate objects inlaid with Reynolds’ well-known performance work. Reynolds’ photo weavings, created in 2011, are constructed of newspaper articles collected between the late 1980s and early 1990s, grouped by formal connections and compiled into a photo grid by thread. Many of the photo weavings present a visual cue to Reynolds’ earlier performance work, including the Blood Spot (1992) series, the Mummification (1999–2011) performance series, and Reynolds’ drag performance alter ego Patina du Prey.

The inclusion of Reynolds’ photo weavings in Long-Term Survivor Project adds context to Yamrus’ and Perry’s work addressing the here and now, but shadows the simultaneous undertaking of past and present existing in Reynolds’ work by proxy. This is where Long-Term Survivor Project seems to attempt an ambitious curatorial goal rather than address how the complexities of each body of work communicate the idea of survivorship when placed together.

Since survivorship is so much larger a topic than can be examined in a single show, SF Camerawork undoubtedly selected Yamrus, Reynolds, and Perry for the depth of their work in order to attain a collective impact greater than each artist presents on their own. Beyond the at times challenging juxtaposition of the three bodies of work, Long-Term Survivor Project does succeed in making a case for a larger conversation to be had around the topic. 

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Long-Term Survivor Project is on view at SF Camerawork, in

San Francisco

, through July 18, 2015.

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