Laura Green ’18
Art has a special power to hit one with intense emotion, seemingly out of nowhere. The Smith College Museum of Art’s exhibition “Eric Avery: AIDS Work,” completely knocked me out. I was staggering from the moment I walked into the gallery. The bold, graphic prints explore the physical and emotional trauma of the AIDS epidemic in a wholly honest and uncensored way.
As a doctor, artist and gay man, Eric Avery was uniquely poised to educate communities about the devastating effects of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. In a time before AIDS was understood, Avery’s work revolved around his experience simply trying to come to terms with sudden, personal loss. “Me Today Gone Tomorrow” was inspired by the death of Ron Jarvis, Avery’s art dealer’s partner. The 1989 piece, with its sharp red and black lines, speaks to the chaos and confusion of the time. No one knew when they would lose a friend next and no one knew why. Avery said, “I was just getting to know Ron, and then he was gone.”
Uncertainty and fear are common motifs in Avery’s work. “Blood Test” (1985) depicts Avery’s own HIV blood test. He created the piece during the two weeks he spent waiting for his results. There’s a sense of panic as the tourniquet constricts his flesh. The three- dimensionality of the built-up paper pulp of the piece creates a sense of depth and realism to the monochromatic work. “Chance/Tattoo” similarly deals with the odds of contracting HIV. The depiction of thumbs up and thumbs down hauntingly trivializes the potential of a positive or negative diagnosis.
The exhibition was the result of a combined collecting effort by the Smith College Museum of Art and the Mortimer Rare Book Room. This is not the first time the Smith College Museum of Art has tackled challenging and emotional material. Their spring exhibition last year entitled “Mothers’ Arms: Käthe Kollwitz’s Women and War” also featured works of poignant grief, although Käthe Kollwitz produced her work around World War I.
Avery’s primary goal as an artist was to educate and promote understanding. Some pieces are more literal in this goal than others. “How To Use Male and Female Condom” (1995) does just what the title suggests. The piece demonstrates the proper steps of putting on both male and female condoms, a simple form of prevention against HIV and AIDS. These prints were displayed in public restrooms in Houston, T , in order to have the greatest exposure possible.
Avery again combined art and education when he designed a space to both view art and receive medical attention. On World AIDS Day in 1997, Avery installed prints aestheticizing medicine, such as the work based on Avery’s own blood smear, in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. Here, staff from the Cambridge Zinberg HIV Clinic treated patients and provided counseling. This performance piece encapsulated Avery’s motto, “art can save lives.”
Avery is a remarkable artist and physician who dedicated his life to treating and preventing AIDS. He worked in Somalia and Indonesia, specialized in treating trans people with HIV, and constantly strived to make a difference. The Smith College Museum of Art’s exhibition expertly blended the clinical and the personal in a profound way, honoring Avery’s important work.
The exhibition is currently on view in the Nixon Gallery, the rotational space for the Cunningham Center’s collection of prints and photographs. It will be on display until Dec. 11.