The Learned Art of Presence

MOCRA’s upcoming exhibition features the work of artist Adrian Kellard, who died in 1991 from AIDS-related causes. His name joined the too-long litany of creative lives cut short by the shears of the pandemic. This exhibition falls during the 30th year of the plague and the 20th anniversary of Kellard’s death, and the impact of AIDS on Kellard’s life is one sub-theme of the exhibition. The references are direct and explicit in some works, such as The Promise, Prayer of the Faithful in Ordinary Time, and Healing . . . The Learned Art of Compassion. But overall a sense of compassion and spiritual strength suffuses all of the works, qualities that sustained Kellard through the struggles associated with the disease.

Adrian Kellard, Healing . . . The Learned Art of Compassion (detail), 1985-86.
Adrian Kellard, "Healing . . . The Learned Art of Compassion" (detail), 1985-86. Latex on wood. MOCRA Collection.

Yesterday I came across a recent New York Times review of We Were Here, a recently released documentary about the response of San Francisco’s gay and lesbian community to the onslaught of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. The article caught my eye not only for its resonances with the Adrian Kellard exhibition, but also because the documentary includes an interview with artist Daniel Goldstein. Works from Goldstein’s Icarian series were included in MOCRA’s seminal 1994 exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS, and one of the works is now in the museum’s collection. That work appeared in MOCRA’s Good Friday exhibition, and prompted a thoughtful reflection from one of our visitors, recorded in this blog post. For the Icarian series, Goldstein took  leather covers from workout benches salvaged from a gym in the Castro District and enclosed them in simple but noble framing cases–creating, in a real sense, reliquaries for these mementoes of the many men who used the gym.

Daniel Goldstein, Icarian II / Incline, 1993.
Daniel Goldstein, "Icarian II / Incline," 1993. Leather, sweat, wood, copper, felt, plexiglas. Private collection.

Like Kellard, Goldstein employs his art to mediate and express a response to the reality of AIDS. Goldstein, it should be noted, also founded two non-profit organizations to generate funds for AIDS-related education and services. The trailer for We Were Here (on the film website, or on YouTube) includes snippets of the interview with Daniel Goldstein (he is the third person to speak).

As I re-read an essay by Robert Atkins on the Icarian series, I’m struck by one line: “The gay/AIDS subtext of Goldstein’s work is also open to a generational reading.” Atkins is referring to the different ways in which the works might be apprehended by gay men who remember a pre-AIDS world and those who grew up under the specter of AIDS. Since MOCRA is a university museum, I’m reminded of the “Mindset Lists” that circulate at the beginning of every academic year, updating educators on their students’ cultural frame of references. AIDS and HIV don’t rate a mention on this year’s list — the disease was entrenched well before these students were born, and reasonably effective treatments have been on the market for most of their lifetimes — so I’m curious to see how much background we’ll have to provide, how much translation will be entailed, in helping our younger visitors make a connection to Adrian Kellard’s work.

But, as with Goldstein’s reliquaries, the deeper currents of compassion, love, service, hope, and cherished memory expressed in Kellard’s woodcuts, flow well beyond the specificity any one disease, any one group of people, any one city, any one generation.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

The art of dying

Artist Tobi Kahn, who has a long association with MOCRA (including the exhibitions Metamorphoses and Avoda: Objects of the Spirit) , was featured in a recent New York Times article on the role art can play in the dying process. (Read the article here.) As he relates in the article, Kahn found that through his artwork he was able to provide a measure of solace to his mother as she lay in the hospital during her final days. From that experience, Kahn was inspired to consult with clergy members, hospice workers and funeral directors about what qualities in art would be comforting to people who are dying.

Expressing through his work both the pain of suffering and the hope for healing is not new ground for Kahn, who has completed a number of commissions for hospices, hospitals and memorial chapels, along with several Holocaust memorials. And, as MOCRA has demonstrated amply in exhibitions such as Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS, The Greater Good: An Artist’s Contemporary View of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Robert Farber: A Retrospective, 1985-1995, Junko Chodos: The Breath of Consciousness, Good Friday: The Suffering Christ in Contemporary Art, Georges Rouault: Miserere et Guerre, and Lewis deSoto: Paranirvana, numerous contemporary artists confront the reality of suffering and death in their work.

MOCRA Director Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J., was interviewed for the New York Times article. He remarks, “One of the common bonds across traditions is the human concern with suffering, love, mortality, immortality. The role of religious art at the end of life is that it helps us focus on what’s really important–an interior healing, even if there is no physical healing, and finally a sense of gratitude.”

I am struck, though, that Kahn is creating art for this privileged point in people’s lives with a measure of intentionality. While many (if not most) health care facilities select art that will be soothing to its patients, and even commission specific works of art and even sculpture gardens or meditation rooms, I wonder how often that art is considered from the perspective of those who know that death is near, that there is no further physical healing to be expected. How can art contribute to palliative care? How can it complement the services of chaplains and hospice workers in accompanying people as they approach the end of life?

Samuel Freedman, the author of the article, suggests that Kahn’s works “subscribe at least loosely to the Judaic concept of ‘hiddur mitzvah,’ sanctifying something (a commandment, if one is literal) by beautifying it.” Amidst all the trappings of current American healthcare–cutting edge technology, powerful pharmaceuticals, agonizing contention over how to pay for treatments–can all parties in their own ways help to beautify, and thereby sanctify, the process of dying?

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

Shifting Perspectives

A frequent visitor comment about MOCRA, is how distinctive a venue it is for the display of art: the lofty 30-foot ceiling in the nave gallery, the twelve intimate side-chapel galleries, the hints of stained glass color that leak out from behind the window shades. It is as if the building has a memory of its previous incarnation as a chapel, a memory that imbues the space with an inviting atmosphere of contemplation and calm.

From a curatorial perspective, the space is a mixed blessing. There is a surprising amount of running wall space, yet the chapel’s configuration lends itself to some exhibitions but not others. For instance, a natural approach to organizing our upcoming exhibition would be to install the works following the sequence of events of Good Friday. But the side chapel galleries will not accommodate works larger than 6 feet wide — and one of the first works in sequence is nearly 7 feet wide!

What about grouping works by theme? This show naturally includes quite a few works that reference the Crucifixion. Should they be grouped together to allow easy comparison, or should they be distributed throughout the gallery to avoid monotony? Here again the sizes of the works provide a partial guide, as larger works had to be installed in the nave gallery. Style and media also play a role — we seek a visually harmonious installation as well a logical one.

We have made one significant adjustment to the nave gallery which will come as a surprise to visitors familiar with the museum: there is now a wall bifurcating the central gallery, effectively creating two galleries out of one large space. It takes some getting used to, but also offers a whole new way of conceiving an installation at MOCRA. Just to give you a little taste of the effect, here is a picture of the wall — sans artwork — along with a similar view from our 1994-95 exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS:

A new wall inhabits in MOCRA's nave gallery. The lift at right is not an installation piece.
A new wall inhabits in MOCRA's nave gallery. The lift at right is not an installation piece.

You are seeing a glimpse of Doug DePice’s Jesus in Central America – First Station of the Cross there on the left.

The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS" (1994-95).
Installation view, "Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS" (1994-95).

Stop by this Sunday, February 15, and see for yourself how we installed this exhibition. Do you agree with our choices, or would you have approached things differently?

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

Eight days and counting

It’s been a while since our last post, but it doesn’t mean we’ve been slacking off. We’re just over a week away from the opening of MOCRA’s next exhibition, Good Friday.

Coming Soon!
Coming Soon!

The exhibition opens on Sunday, February 15, with a free public reception from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. If you are in the St. Louis area, please stop by.

More information about the exhibition, include sample images, is available on MOCRA’s website.

It’s been busy behind the scenes as we undertake the various tasks related to a new exhibition: publicity, building out parts of the gallery, deciding on where each work will hang, writing the texts for the wall labels and didactics, and myriad other details.

Juan Gonzalez' "Don't Mourn, Consecrate" ... installation in progress
Juan Gonzalez' "Don't Mourn, Consecrate" ... installation in progress

For instance, this exhibition involves recreating a couple of works that haven’t been installed for some years. One by the late artist Juan González, titled Don’t Mourn, Consecrate, originally hung in the street-level windows of New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. It was last shown in MOCRA’s 1994-95 exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS. The photo at right demonstrates one of the many uses for bubble-wrap, here serving to help us visualize the size and position of the stats of AIDS-related deaths that will hang to the right of the image.

The rejected clocks.
Rejected clocks.

Sometimes exhibition installations can send us on unexpected shopping expeditions. One work by the late artist Adrian Kellard includes a small kitchen wall clock. However, when the work arrived at MOCRA several years ago the clock did not make the journey. All we have to go on is a picture of the work in the artist’s studio. How difficult, you might ask, is it to find a clock of suitable size, style, and (significantly for the work), sound?

It turns out to be surprisingly difficult, involving rummaging around local resale shops, calling stores in the Yellow Pages, and searching on E-bay and numerous other websites. In the end, though, after a few disappointments, we found one that fit the bill.

The clock in place on Kellard's work.
The clock in situ.

Over the next week (in theater it’s called “Hell Week,” and that is apt for museums as well) I’ll see if I can’t get a few of the other staff members to pause long enough to share their observations and anecdotes.

In the meantime, please check out the MOCRA website for more information on Good Friday, and come by on February 15.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director