LINCOLN PARK — A new Lincoln Park art gallery is playing host to "Art AIDS America," a national traveling exhibit on the story of the AIDS epidemic as depicted in art.
The exhibit opened on World AIDS Day last week and continues at the Alphawood Gallery, 2401 N. Halsted St., through April 2.
Speaking at the opening, co-curator Jonathan Katz said AIDS produced "widespread panic" in the art world in the early '80s, when it was thought to mainly affect gay men and before more was learned about how the disease spread through sexual contact.
That discovery, however, had other ill effects culturally, Katz added, as U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) pushed through a ban on government funding for programs that in any way condoned homosexuality — including health programs on the epidemic.
According to Katz, art had to shy from overtly addressing the AIDS epidemic if it was going to get into some art museums, with the result that it was sometimes "camouflaged" to gain entry and, in effect, "infect" the art world, much as HIV infected gay men.
Included in the exhibit is Darren Waterston's "Isenheim Field," which makes reference to a medieval work on the plague at the same time it mimics the skin blotches of Kaposi's sarcoma, symptomatic of AIDS.
"We can't assume the cultural context we have today," Katz said, when homosexuality and gay marriage are widely accepted and not reviled.
Keith Haring's "Altar Piece" is hidden within what would seem to be a bank vault.
Other works, however, are more overt. Chicago artist Roger Brown casts a skeleton wearing a leather biker's cap against one of his distinctive patterned imagist backgrounds.
There's also an example of the AIDS quilts commonly constructed in the '80s.
Katz said the exhibit was all the more important given the potential backlash of a Donald Trump presidency, adding, "It's up to us to make sure that we don't revisit these dark days again."
The exhibit was organized by the Tacoma Art Museum and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, where it was on display through September.
The gallery has been set up in an old bank on the site at the Alphawood Foundation. It's open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays and 11-6 Fridays-Sundays. Admission is free, but timed admission passes are recommended, available through the exhibit website.
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