Rock Hushka came of age as an artist under the shadow of AIDS.
He was a high school student in North Dakota in 1983 when he first read in Time or Newsweek about what was then called the gay plague. It was barely two years after the first cases had been reported, when the number of known infections stood at a few thousand. Even with no idea how bad things would get, Hushka remembers thinking, “This is not OK.”
In the increasingly not-OK decade that followed, Hushka studied art at the University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin and was riveted by the “passionate and focused” response of artists to the crisis. Directly addressing the stigma surrounding AIDS, they demanded that attention be paid. “They showed that art can be an agent of change,” he said.
Today the Tacoma Art Museum’s chief curator, Hushka has brought together an exhibition that both examines and continues that tradition. The 127 works in Art AIDS America walk a younger generation through the 34-year history of HIV/AIDS as depicted by photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Leibovitz, graffiti-inspired artist Keith Haring, painter Jasper Johns, conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, performance artist Karen Findley and a host of equally powerful but less familiar names. At the same time, the exhibit reminds an AIDS-fatigued nation that, with 1.2 million Americans living with HIV and 50,000 new infections a year in the U.S., the battle isn’t over.
HIV researchers and activists say that the show, which opened last weekend and will run through Jan. 10, is exactly the medicine that’s needed for the global pandemic’s forgotten home front.
“HIV/AIDS is still a major health issue even if it’s not on the front pages of the newspapers every day,” said Dr. Jeffrey Schouten, director of the Office of HIV/AIDS Network Coordination, or HANC, which is based at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and works with prevention and treatment networks across the nation. “Art plays a unique role in highlighting some of the social issues below the radar screen of people who think AIDS is over.”