There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that artists cannot make good art from, including such strange substances as bodily fluids and excrement, both animal and human. You may remember the controversy surrounding the paintings by Chris Ofili, the British artist whose trademark material is elephant dung. Bull's urine was used in the past to produce a particular yellow paint, famous for its warm, golden glow. Andy Warhol made a series of so-called 'piss paintings,' where he and his assistants literally urinated on canvas treated with copper; the resulting 'Oxidations' elevated a lowly process into high art. Anselm Kiefer, a celebrated German artist, deals with apocalyptic subjects and uses for his art everything from hay to semen.
With this introduction, I think you're sufficiently prepared to enter the new exhibition that opened at the Fowler Museum at UCLA last weekend. Among the sixty-plus contemporary artworks, there are a few which will make you giggle nervously or stare in disbelief. I wonder what your reaction will be when you see the elegant red gown made out of hundreds of sewn-together condoms and learn that these are condoms which didn't get past the factory's quality control. The exhibition, titled "Make Art/Stop AIDS," provides more than just a lecture on the difficult subject of AIDS and the fragility of life: it finds poetry where few of us dare to search. There are a number of artworks that are simply impossible to get out of your mind because of their visual eloquence and the highly unusual materials used for them. My favorite piece is composed of hundreds of empty pill bottles collected over the years from AIDS patients. These bottles are suspended from the ceiling in a tight formation reminiscent of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, her halo in this case made out of hundreds of syringes. I know it might sound macabre, but actually it has a beauty and appeal which brings to mind the glorious death scene of an operatic production of Tosca or La Traviata.
I went to see this exhibition on Sunday afternoon, a few hours before the broadcast of the Academy Awards. One of this year's nominated films, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, tells the heartbreaking story of a paralyzed man able to communicate only with the blinking of his left eye. Visual artists - whether they are filmmakers, painters, or sculptors - never shy away from death and violence.
In search of truth, some artists go to great lengths. Case in point: the exhibition of photographs by Leonard Nimoy at Louis Stern's gallery in West Hollywood. Young, naked, obese women, surprisingly comfortable in their skin, pose in carefully choreographed compositions that evoke images by Botticelli, Matisse, or photographs of supermodels by Herb Ritts. I loved the authority and gravitas of Nimoy's images; some of my friends were horrified by them.
Make Art/Stop AIDS
On view at the Fowler Museum
through June 15, 2008
The Full Body Project: Photographs by Leonard Nimoy
On view at Louis Stern Fine Arts
through March 1, 2008
Banner image: Leonard Nimoy, Homage to Ritts (detail)