“In the midst of life we are in death” (Media vita in morte sumus). That ancient Christian meditation on mortality, found in both Gregorian chant and in the funeral service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, leapt to mind as I toured AFTER/LIFE, the quietly breathtaking (pun intended) current exhibition at the Graduate Theological Union’s Doug Adams Gallery. The opposite is also true: in the hands of artists like the two shown here, in the midst of death we are still very much in life.
The gallery, a high-ceilinged ground floor space flooded with natural light from tall windows, painted an airy white, is an ideal setting for this stunning installation of work by two gay male artists, Ed Aulerich-Sugai and Mark Mitchell, whose lives were profoundly altered by HIV/AIDS.
San Francisco painter Aulerich-Sugai died of AIDS-related complications in 1994 after seven years battling the disease; Arizona-based textile artist Mitchell survived the illness, thanks to anti-retroviral drugs. Both men were AIDS activists; Mitchell is also a social justice activist. Neither knew each other in life, but both made work responding intensely to their experiences of that plague, as it affected their own bodies and those of people they loved. Guest curator Alla Efimova had the inspiration to pair them here.
Aulerich-Sugai’s large-scale Figures series, all painted in the last year of his life, depict tableaux of introspective human nudes floating or ascending within a dimensionless white space. Their bodies, limned in swaths of dark brown, black, purple, pink and orange, are luridly lit with large areas of white pigment: a glare that renders them semi-translucent. They seem to be part liquid, part air, dissolving before our eyes, half in and half out of fleshly embodiment, suspended between life and death.
In these canvases, Aulerich-Sugai, who was Japanese-American and inspired by Japanese mythology and iconography, might have been describing his vision of the Buddhist concept of the Bardo: an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state of existence between death and rebirth. You can’t help but imagine that he himself was experiencing something like the Bardo while painting these arresting compositions, feeling his own body weaken and lose its substance, knowing he was dying yet still alive enough to make such urgent, elegiac work. As farewells to corporeal beauty and carnal joys, they are a moving and remarkable last will and testament to the artist’s community in a time of devastating loss; to his own grief, fear, courage and persistence; and to his belief in the commemorative power of art.
Mark Mitchell, a theatrical costume fabricator and textile artist, witnessed many of his beloved friends dying of HIV/AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s. He transmuted his anguish into designing and creating painstakingly, entirely by hand, a series of exquisite, custom-made, individualized garments for their spirits’ journey to the after-life.
Meticulously crafted of creamy white and ivory silks, satins, chiffon and tulle, some hand-crocheted or knitted using delicate fibers, these slyly campy yet ethereal, gender-ambiguous Burial Ensembles — robes, gowns, a pants suit, a jacket, accessories — are obsessively fashioned using antique sewing techniques. Their titles are women’s names: Devora, Rhonda, Anna. Their tiny stitches, delicate embroidery, smocking, hand-covered buttons and hand-finished buttonholes are acts of supreme devotion.
Several pieces are suspended from the gallery’s ceiling, where they can be animated by stray breezes or viewers’ breaths, In memoriam to the astral bodies meant to inhabit them.
This is a remarkable exhibition. Please see it.