December 1, 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of Day With(out) Art (DWA). Over those twenty years, this annual day of mourning and action has metamorphosed from emphasizing loss (signaled by removing artworks or draping them, or dimming the lights in galleries) to encouraging the creative energy and insight that art can bring to a devastating and demoralizing situation. As the Visual AIDS website notes:
… Day With(out) Art has grown into a collaborative project in which an estimated 8,000 national and international museums, galleries, art centers, AIDS Service Organizations, libraries, high schools and colleges take part.
MOCRA has participated in DWA regularly since 1994. In addition to highlighting particular works of art, three times we have hosted and helped organize observances involving members of the wider arts community. For instance, in 2000 we hosted a DWA observance in conjunction with the exhibition Robert Farber: A Retrospective, 1985-1995. We were joined by members of the theater community, two local gospel singers, members of the Gateway Men’s Chorus, and local visual artists, in dramatically memorializing those we have lost to HIV/AIDS. In 2006, during an encore presentation of Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, we subdued the Clouds and put the focus on photographer Carolyn Jones’ exquisite Living Proof, a series of portraits of people living — thriving — in the face of HIV/AIDS.
This year, we observe DWA by exhibiting The Promise, by the late Adrian Kellard, a rising artist in 1980s New York. His large-scale carved wood block panels evoke both medieval shrines and the woodblock prints of 20th-century German Expressionists, but their bright colors and folk-art quality make them accessible to a wide range of audiences.
The Promise riffs on images of St. Christopher, the legendary giant who unwittingly carried the Christ child across a river. The image expresses endurance and perseverance in the midst of suffering. Its enigmatic text, “I will never leave you,” seems to assert love, hope, compassion, and loyalty. It is an especially poignant message when we consider that Kellard’s own life was cut short by AIDS. He died in the fall of 1991 at the age of 32.
The Promise was included in the 1992-93 international traveling exhibition From Media to Metaphor: Art about AIDS, and in the 1994 exhibition Art’s Lament: Creativity in the Face of Death (organized by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston).
MOCRA is pleased to be able to share The Promise with St. Louis audiences for this year’s Day With(out) Art. MOCRA will have the work on display beginning Tuesday, December 1, through December 13. Find more information here.
I’d like to note also that the current exhibition at MOCRA, Michael Byron: Cosmic Tears, though not directly connected to HIV/AIDS, does speak to the ambiguity of suffering and the challenge it poses to us as a fact of our human existence. I suspect that Byron’s works speak to many of our visitors of the ways in which we can creatively elicit meaning out of all of life’s experiences, both the joys and the tears.
In whatever fashion makes sense to you, we hope you will join us in observing World AIDS Day and Day With(out) Art.
— David Brinker, Assistant Director