Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Lazzaretto, a New Painting from the David Wojnarowicz Series

A lazzaretto is a quarantine hospital in a port city.  Venice built the first lazzaretto (and coined the term) in the wake of the Black Death of 1348.  People who were ill, or were thought to pose a hazard to the population, were isolated in these hospitals usually located on an island or far from the city.  I'm not sure that these institutions still exist.  The USA certainly had them; there were several here in New York in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Philadelphia preserves the oldest lazzaretto in the USA.

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.


Leonardo Ricardo said...

Doug, you are capturing recent memories. Most LGBTI people I know trudged through this timeline and I can easily see the story you tell us with your ¨picture.¨ I thank you for this because real people and real suffering must remain fresh in my mind...especially suffering that my mind softens with time. I, like you, like most of us, lost many loved ones. There was a dear friend I remembered immediately when I looked at your painting...his name was/is Bob Mazzochi and he once lived near you in Brooklyn Heights. Shortly before his death I stopped on my way from Puerto Rico to England to visit him. His appearance was that of a fragile old man but his eyes still held the warm gaze and powerful confidence of the very/very handsome, nice and brilliant man that he was/is. Thank you for sharing this, it's a memorial to many people who have gone away. Many brothers faced unthinkable illness and often coped with that destiny in ways both creative, accepting, loving toward others and STRONG. I find our people to be very strong even when weak. Thanks again, Len/Leonardo, Guatemala

Tristan Alexander said...

Very shocking and dramatic. Sad but well done.
On a slightly different note, what is it about some artists (you and me as well) that we like to do series? I have not done many as long as yours, but 3, 4, 6 yeas I seem to like to do sets/series.

JCF said...

Love "Tina's" attitude. She's got a look that says, "If you DARE pity me, my (for revision, Doug?) perfectly sculpted nails can cut-a-bitch!"

Great work. Someday, when the series is completed, SO.HELP.ME. I want to see it in person!!!!

Counterlight said...

Thanks for the very moving compliment Len.

I don't know why I do series. I really like doing them, exploring a theme and a narrative. I also like the challenge of trying to make paintings that fit together, and yet can stand on their own. Perhaps I am a frustrated movie director. I look at movies a lot for ideas, especially in this series. Among the many artists I've learned from is the great cinematographer Gregg Toland who worked for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane among other movies.

Yes indeed, JCF, Tina needs no pity. She isn't looking for any in this picture. I don't remember that other Tina years ago looking for any pity either. I suppose if you really want pity, you dress up as Greta Garbo in Camille, definitely not as Tina Turner.
I'll give the nails some thought.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Brings back memories of my departed friend Scott Bishop... God bless you, Scott!