David Wojnarowicz: Photography & Film, 1978-1992

Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC

by Michael Turner
Since 2009, the Belkin has presented a number of exhibitions, events and publications focused on North American aesthetic and cultural production in the 1960s and ’70s. So what better way to mark the beginning of the 2020s than a first step into what is arguably the most transformative decade of the 20th century: the 1980s? And what better artist to take that step with than David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992)?
Born into a dysfunctional New Jersey family, Wojnarowicz left home in his mid-teens to live on the streets of New York City. In 1973, he took a job at Pottery Barn, where he met the writer John Ensslin, who introduced him to the city’s literary underground and encouraged his interest in art. While the rest, as they say, is history, it is a history that is as abject as it is glamorous. As his star rose, his health failed. When not making art, Wojnarowicz, who was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1988, was active in AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) – until art and life were one.
Included in this exhibition, the fi rst to focus on the artist’s photographs and films, are over 100 works that range from test prints to collaborative videos. Most notable is the series Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-79), for which Wojnarowicz photographed friends wearing a mask with the face of the 19th-century French poet while they posed in locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. Here, according to the gallery, Wojnarowicz “anachronistically combines historical time, space and activity by fusing the French poet's identity with the modern urban activities and settings common to the queer community of the time.”

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