Two Exhibitions Illuminate Queer NYC Subculture During the AIDS Epidemic

Image: © Estate of David Wojnarowicz, Democracy, 1990, Black-and-white silkscreen print, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City

A black-and-white illustration by David Wojnarowicz, on view last week at Chelsea gallery ClampArt, shows a grim reaper descending with a large scythe. The reaper claims to be “Democracy At Work,” but freely slices through individuals and activists voicing concerns like “No healthcare,” “Killer cops,” “Corrupt politicians,” and “Unemployment.” Though the piece was created in 1990, this so-called democracy keeps on wounding today.

“Continuum” is a term used by two curators who’ve recently organized exhibitions of art created amidst and in response to the AIDS epidemic in New York City. Both exhibitions provide a peek into the artistic scenes, subcultures, and venues that cultivated community in NYC during this time. Though the disease is no longer a death sentence and most of the venues have shut their doors, it remains true that radical havens for the marginalized often have a short and uncertain lifespan.

Keith Haring photographed by Mark Sink (image courtesy of Susan Martin)

Screaming in the Streets: AIDS, Art, Activism focuses on the many radical art, performance, and nightlife spaces associated with New York’s queer community in the ’80s and ’90s. Presented by ClampArt and archival service Ward 5B, the show has a vast amount of text-based material on view, uniquely outnumbering more “formal” art like photographs or paintings. The curator, Greg Ellis, sees his show as a continuation of the many exhibitions done on art and AIDS, with the goal of “[illustrating] the intimacy of the downtown underground art community, the radical spaces they inhabited and the heavy losses that were endured.”

Screaming in the Streets installation view (image courtesy of ClampArt)

Much of the work in Screaming in the Streets comes from Ellis’s personal archives. “I came of age during the height of the epidemic and wanted to share the items that decorated the studio apartments, lofts and hotel walls of myself and friends. Our personal spaces were decorated/littered with memorial flyers, activist posters from marches and demonstrations along with the photography and artwork of friends,” he says. “The gallery and current exhibition reflects those spaces.”

Image: Jack Smith Memorial Card, 1989, Double-sided offset print, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City

Amidst work by David…

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