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An Artist’s Highly Personal History of AIDS

One might be led to think, from the title of Hunter Reynolds’s current exhibition at PPOW Gallery, Survival AIDS Medication Reminder, that the show deals with issues of health and physical condition, or perhaps reminiscence. In some ways it does, but its compelling content and strident egotism completely overwhelm the conceit that ostensibly occasions the exhibition. To glimpse this conceit, it’s best to begin at the back of the gallery with a small wall text by the entrance to a darkened video screening room. The signboard declares Reynolds’s deep appreciation for the nurturing relationship he had with Kathleen White, who for a year-and-a-half stretch would call Reynolds and remind him to take his medications. (Reynolds is HIV positive.) This routine ended when White died of cancer in 2014. If this exhibition were only limited to this small room with the video piece “Medication Reminder” (2015), which contains intimate snippets of conversation overlaying some rather hokey images of beglittered hands combing through mounds of pills, the work would read as solemnly touching, though perhaps dated. However, Reynolds aspires to more than memorializing White. Survival AIDS Medication Reminder is an act of self-historicizing — establishing an account of his activist role within the AIDS crisis, particularly around the epic social and political battles of the 1980s and 1990s.

Reynolds is as much an archivist as he is a visual and performance artist and activist. PPOW’s catalogue features Jason Foumberg’s interview of Reynolds in which Reynolds grants that the separate endeavors are coextensive — the archiving has been a part of his life almost as long as his art practice. In fact, Reynolds’s archiving has been so successfully integrated into his art practice that the Fales Library at NYU bought his archives (made part of the “Downtown Collection,” which document art production in downtown New York from the 1970s through ’90s).

There was a good deal of Reynolds’s work to chronicle. Reynolds performance and visual practice has produced several significant and distinct bodies of work over the past three decades. His “Memorial Dress,” stitched with the name of 25,000 people who have died of AIDS was worn in performance by his alter ego Patina du Prey in the early 1990s. His Blood Spot (1992) series reproduced visual replicas of splatters of his blood. Reynolds has also carried out a succession of mummification performances in which he is wrapped in cellophane and tape, and, as demonstrated in “Butur Mummification Performance” (2012) placed in the street to block traffic and then dragged along the asphalt like an errant piece of luggage.

This exhibition visually contextualizes his oeuvre within the pitched conflicts generated by the explosion of AIDS by superimposing images of his work onto c-prints of disparate newspaper clippings sutured together with thread. However, this is not simply about making sense of his practice. Reynolds wants to take on the role of historian — really to be a self-historian. He does this inexpertly, not paying sufficient attention to the distinctions between his work and experience and the issues raised by the pandemic. He inserts himself into the public accounts of that larger history as if to memorialize himself.

In truth his images are arresting, particularly being paired with the didactic content of the newspaper stories. The brutal significance of crisis can now, in retrospect, be hardly exaggerated. Many of its horrendous permutations are displayed in Reynolds’s collages. Reading them I am transported back to a time when AIDS defined the zeitgeist. The clippings convey the many ways the disease was expressed through culture: mobilizing the medical field in the discovery of the virus, guiding aesthetic production, affecting military service, inflecting congressional action or inaction, impacting state laws enacted to prevent gays and lesbians from civil rights protections, ACT UP! Protests, prompting responses by religious leaders, influencing bias and hate crimes (not to mention high school bans of gay students, police brutality against gays, and international advocacy of gay and lesbian issues), and generating death notices. It was the everywhere war, a campaign of abasement on multiple fronts. It was also a time when the personal and the political were vitally and powerfully married.

Reynolds encapsulates this history well and thus the work is irresistible. If the show has a weakness it is in Reynolds’s narcissistic interposing of himself as a kind of key presence. This interposition is accomplished in a ham-fisted fashion. For example, the carapace of one of his gold mummy wrappings is hung in a back gallery from a rusty hook and chains. All this pathos makes him too much the martyr and not enough the clear-eyed historian. This is not to say that Reynolds doesn’t belong in this history. He does. However, in this exhibition he reduces the complexity of the struggles and agonies of that time to the mere backdrop for the interventions of his own practice. This show would have benefited from less fear that Reynolds’ feral and uncompromising practice will be forgotten.

Survival AIDS Medication Reminder continues at PPOW Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, 3rd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 17, 2015.