AIDS is a powerful subject for art. Usually the AIDS-inspired artworks that attract media attention are angry, gut-wrenching outpourings of frustration from artists either afflicted with the disease or watching helplessly as friends die.
At Florida Center for Contemporary Art, AIDS is the focus of a more rational approach. The goal is not to vent rage, but to provide a vehicle for better understanding and a launch pad for community activism.
Betty Napolitan, former assistant director of the center, has put together "Double Vision," a show of collaborations between artists and people with AIDS (PWAs). She brought them together at gatherings of AIDS support groups and at art locations, and let the artists and PWAs form their own pairings.
The result is a show to judge not by established art criteria, but by how well the works succeed in the mission of moving a viewer to compassion or action.
You enter the somber setting of the art center where you're greeted by a bright bulletin board full of notices and other information pertinent to AIDS, a communication vehicle in itself. At the rear of the gallery, behind a temporary divider, is a graffiti wall, filled with viewers' comments (Example: "Just because I'm HIV / Doesn't mean you can't love me. _ Dan"). More communication.
A collaborative group video by artist Roger Palmer establishes mood. On it, AIDS patients speak out on the social ostentation, ignorance and government ineptitude that seem as much a part of the syndrome as Kaposi's sarcoma or pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.
It plays in the background as the viewer looks at other works, most of them one-on-one collaborations.
In The Color of Light, Barbara D'Amario presents a portrait of AIDS patient Phyllis Lange in an attractive non-threatening setting of primary colors. Lange's gentle smile transcends her emaciated form. The portrait is sensitive and genuine. Lange contracted AIDS from a man she had dated for two years; the man denied it and disappeared.
Artist Lorraine Genovar excels in accessibility. In Wretched Blues with PWA Dennis Leoutsakas, Genovar conveys the grief of a mother losing a son.
In The Waiting Room, a participatory installation with PWA Art Phillips, Genovar establishes an office setting. But the desk chair is a wheelchair, and intravenous equipment looms above it. Medical bills litter the desktop; pill bottles stuff the drawer. On the wall are old family photographs from Phillips' family, hand-colored by Genovar, relating to a presence in which the viewer _ and perhaps the victim _ cannot participate.
Artist Neverne Covington worked with PWA Jim Morrison to create Soaring, depicting a man reaching skyward, his face uplifted, his arms repeated as in time-lapse photography to form "wings," his lower body disintegrating into white space and line drawing. It is heroic, handsome, hopeful.
Rob Rothfarb and patient Frank Dupuis' project, a series of panels of questions that reveal peoples' fear of AIDS, is also therapeutic. Dupuis writes, "When we began this project, my life was not in order. Exchanging ideas and thoughts with Rob and then to see what we have been working on has helped put my life in order."
AIDS ArtReach is ongoing. Says Napolitan in a statement on the wall, "Our project began as an art exhibition and is becoming a grass-roots movement. We have found that through collaboration a collective spirit of empowerment has grown for the artists and PWAs."
Future projects are a catalog in portfolio form that will document the show and two plays for World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. A show of new collaborations, including works from the ArtReach project, is scheduled for September at the Tampa Museum of Art's educational gallery.
AT A GLANCE
What: Double Vision (AIDS ArtReach Project).
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday through June 29.
Where: Florida Center for Contemporary Art, 1513 E Eighth Ave., Tampa.
Information: 248-1171 (Tampa).