I felt intimidated with the prospect of painting David Wojnarowicz's struggles with AIDS, his personal struggles and his political struggles. This was the central experience of the last years of his life and the focus of some of his finest work. He first went through the experience of his dying friends, especially the death of his mentor and sometime lover, the photographer Peter Hujar. Then Wojnarowicz had to face the prospect of his own death which came in 1992 when he was only 37. And then there were my own experiences with the disease. I lost quite a number of people to the disease, including people I was once very close to; so many attractive capable charming young men cut down before their lives even started. How to paint all of that? How to paint the horror of it, the loss, the official negligence, the popular fear and contempt, and the anger and desperation?
I got the idea for this painting from David Wojnarowicz himself. In 1990, David Wojnarowicz collaborated with a few other artists on an installation piece at P.P.O.W gallery in New York titled The Lazzarretto. It was a labyrinth built from black plastic bags with the first hand stories by AIDS sufferers of their illness and of the discrimination they faced written out on large sheets of paper. In the center of the labyrinth was a horrific sickroom consisting of a skeleton under a blanket on a cot. It was surrounded by pills, garbage, and a small TV tuned to daytime soap operas and game shows. There were other chambers in the labyrinth that pointedly mocked prominent political and religious figures of the day from Jesse Helms to Ed Koch to Cardinal O'Connor.
I decided to take the idea of a lazzaretto, a place of exile, isolation, and neglect, and build upon that. The most prominent figure in make-up and a Tina Turner wig is based on actual experience. Many years ago, I went to one of the regular monthly dances the Lesbian and Gay Center in New York put on to raise money. In the dim light, I saw a young man in almost perfect Tina Turner drag, the hair, the jewelry, the black mini dress, etc. As I got closer, I could see that she was emaciated and covered with Kaposi's spots. I decided to put that memory front and center in the picture. This is the one picture from the Wojnarowicz series where David is not front and center, though he is there in the painting.
After 3 years of work on this series, it's finally taking shape. I've decided that it will be a 16 panel series. The Lazzaretto is the ninth panel completed in the series so far.
It's finished, at least until I decide to go back into it again at some point, something I've been doing a lot with these pictures.
NOTE: Since I posted this, I've gone back into the painting and tweaked and sharpened extensively. I replaced the original photos for this post with new ones of the painting in its current state.
I also took new and better photos of another painting from the series that I finished a few months ago, Painting Fire.